Collectively, Not a Bargain for America

Are teachers unions and collective bargaining bad for STEM education? One technology expert shares his opinion.

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The Obama administration has sounded the warning loud and clear: As fewer American students commit themselves to the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), the bedrock subjects of innovation, the United States stands to lose its position as a global leader. Data from the 2013 World Economic Forum's "Global Competitiveness Report" suggests America's leadership position has already begun to fade badly. The 2013 report places America seventh among 144 countries included in the study. The 2007 World Economic report had the U.S. ranked No. 1. So what is the President's solution to get America back on top? The U.S. must "out-innovate " and "out-educate" the rest of the world.

Out-innovating our global competitors in the near future will prove difficult. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, just 16 percent of high school seniors are "proficient" in mathematics and say that they are interested in STEM careers. Of those who do choose to major in science, technology, engineering and mathematics in college, less than half go on to work in those fields. Moreover, in the most current international assessment test administered by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, American 15 year olds were ranked 17th in the world in science and 25th in math.

Out-educating the rest of the world will not be easy, either. Particularly as the process of K-12 public education in the United States remains at the mercy of teacher unions and collective bargaining contracts that clearly define the work rules of teachers but have no discernible impact on improving public education in America since they were introduced 54 years ago.

Teacher unions have been part of the American education scene since 1857. And during the 102 years after that teacher unions were largely apolitical entities that self-governed internal membership issues like "pay scale, raises linked to seniority, limits on class size and student contact minutes," according to Jane Hannaway's book "Collective Bargaining in Education: Negotiating Change in Today's Schools."

That apolitical status changed abruptly in November 1958 when Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat, won the Wisconsin gubernatorial election. After being sworn into office in January 1959, Nelson did what many politicians do: He proposed a bill to reward his supporters. Nelson's bill was called the "Municipal Employees Relations Act" and it aimed to grant state and municipal workers the power to collectively bargain their work contracts.

The Republicans, however, held the majority of seats in the state's legislature and they opposed Nelson's bill. As the bill's final vote approached, GOP legislators added, without consultation, the Wisconsin Education Association, the state's teacher union, to the bill, so sure were they that the inclusion of the teacher union would send the bill to defeat.

The Republican lawmakers guessed wrong. The Municipal Employees Relations Act of 1959 passed. And for the very first time in American history, a teacher union gained the power of collective bargaining.


There was, however, one hitch. Since the Wisconsin Education Association never asked for the power of collective bargaining, the association's leadership was clueless on how to leverage it after the Municipal Employee Relations Act became law. (Note: for the politically astute, the Municipal Employee Relations Act of 1959 was the law Governor Scott Walker contentiously scaled back in 2011, an unpopular move that forced him to face a recall election that he won in 2012).

But 22 months later, in the fall of 1960, the leader of another teacher union did understand the power of collective bargaining. Abe Levine was the feisty president of the United Federation of Teachers, the most powerful teacher union in New York City. Levine believed New York City school teachers "had absolutely no rights, were afraid to speak up and they were paid less than car washers in New York City." And, he had a plan.

STEM education
STEM jobs
K-12 education