Facing court challenges and dwindling public support, the California Teachers Association is looking to rebrand itself. The powerful union expects its long-term strategic plan—“Your Voice. Our Union. Our Future.”—will take about five years to implement. It covers typical internal union matters such as developing “good leaders” and building an “organizing culture.” It also promises a “student-centered, proactive agenda” and “a consistently high level of educator quality.” But other locals across the United States have dabbled in such “reform unionism” in recent years, and the results have been depressing. Any effort that strayed from traditional union objectives—job security, high salaries and benefits, restrictive work rules—has failed utterly. It’s hard to believe that the CTA’s will prove any different.

One high-profile effort to reform a local teachers’ union from within occurred in Los Angeles in 2010, when a pair of ambitious young teachers, Mike Stryer and Jordan Henry, launched NewTLA, a group whose mission was to persuade the powerful United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) to adopt a sweeping education-reform agenda. Stryer, now a vice president at Teach Plus, took teachers’ unions to task for rallying their members to “stop the corporate agenda” and the “privatization movement.” The real threat facing teachers’ unions, he wrote at the Huffington Post last month, comes not from billionaires or charter schools or philanthropists, but rather from the unions’ inability “to modernize and reshape themselves in the midst of profound demographic changes of their members.” Stryer believes that the Young Turks of the union movement are destined to rebel against their out-of-touch elders. If the old guard doesn’t “modernize” and “professionalize teaching,” he suggests, they will “become a disappearing force that plays a marginal role in American public education.” If only he were right. History suggests otherwise.

It’s true that younger teachers are generally not much interested in the traditional union agenda; the more idealistic and determined ones, like Stryer, are adamantly opposed to it. Most of the union movement’s leaders and activists come from the older ranks. But the young don’t stay young forever. Eventually, the “protect-my-job-and-perks-at-all-costs” mentality sets in. Teachers become more supportive of tenure, seniority, the step-and-column salary scale, and egregious dismissal statutes as the years pass. After NewTLA got off the ground, veteran teacher-union watchdog Mike Antonucci tentatively praised the effort but offered a cautionary note: “The teacher union reform field is littered with the bodies of those who sought to alter the union’s primary mission—protecting teachers—and found themselves ousted in favor of challengers who promised to get tough with administrators.” Terry Moe, author of Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools, was even more blunt. “The argument that young teachers are going to transform the unions is just as fanciful, and just as wrong,” Moe argued. “Unions are unions. They are in the business of protecting jobs: that is why their members join, that is what their members expect them to do, and that is what they actually do. If you expect them to do something else—to represent children or to represent the public interest—you will be wrong.” Bearing out these warnings, NewTLA has disappeared with barely a whimper.

While the unions benefit from the status quo, they’re not immune to external pressure. In fact, today, the unions are embattled on multiple fronts. Fed up with the status quo, parent groups—typically led by mothers—are pushing for education reforms, such as the parent trigger, against union opposition. These grassroots efforts are helping shift public opinion. A recent Gallup poll found that twice as many Americans think teachers’ unions hurt rather than help public schools. (Not surprisingly, teachers’ views of their unions are less critical than those of the general public. In a 2013 Education Next poll, 56 percent of teachers claimed their unions have a positive effect on local schools.) Changes in public opinion seem to be yielding political dividends, too. Whereas unions historically have relied on blanket support from Democrats, a growing number of current reform leaders are left-of-center activists who have concluded the unions do not act in the best interests of children and are siding with opponents across the aisle to battle them in the political arena.

On the legal front, reformers are monitoring the progress of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. In that case, Orange County teacher Rebecca Friedrichs and nine others are challenging the CTA’s right to collect mandatory “agency shop fees” from non-union members. The CTA claims that the fees are used solely for collective bargaining purposes, not politics. The plaintiffs hope that the U.S. Supreme Court will say otherwise and effectively put an end to forced unionism in all 50 states. Meantime, a 2012 lawsuit now underway on behalf of students in Los Angeles and San Jose would, if successful, remove the tenure, seniority, and dismissal statutes from the state education code and make it easier to fire incompetent and criminal teachers. It would also abolish seniority as a method of teacher retention.

So yes, real change is possible, but it won’t come from the California Teachers Association—or any teachers’ union.


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