Teachers unions: an alternative view


Revathi Sampath Kumaran

 When I first conceived of the paper, it was as a means to learn how teachers’ unions function.  A preliminary survey of literature revealed that besides being a fairly understudied area, there are few researchers who do not take a critical view of the unions’ operations,  though  on the basis of their values (ideals/ history) and on the basis of their principles (ideology/ philosophy)[1], teachers’ unions simply appear to be reproducing the identities they were meant to recreate:  Most teachers’ unions had their origin in a collectively and deeply felt sense of injustice or inadequacy, and they were modelled after trade unions, whose members considered it their right to protest against wages and working conditions that were found wanting.

My attempt in this paper would be to try to understand how teachers’ unions have been seen to function, and also to see their functioning from within the framework they have chosen; but while arguing for judging them with greater sensitivity to their historical and philosophical bases, I would also like to examine if there are ways in which teachers’ unions can expand their identities, reflexively re-working their agendas and divesting themselves of certain ‘acquired’ attributes so as to impact educational development in a manner that is appreciable.




There are more than 300 teachers’ unions across the world[2], many of which are umbrella organizations for smaller teacher federations/ associations.  Very often, the unions began as associations of teachers who came together to address certain common social, economic and professional needs.  Most of them now are unapologetically activist, collectively bargaining or militantly mobilising on matters that affect their compensation, employment security, and workplace governance.

Across the world, wages and working conditions have been the major reasons for teacher agitations at all levels, and in democracies, where every vote counts, few political parties have been able to take on the unions.  In the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, for instance, school teachers are a powerful voting bloc that politicians can ignore at their peril.  Ninety per cent of the secondary school teachers of Uttar Pradesh are members of the Madhyamik Shikshak Sangh (MSS) (Kingdon & Muzammil, 2001), which was the first teachers’ association to be formed in Uttar Pradesh[3].   If the MSS gets its strength from the fact that it is a representative body of almost the entire section of the teaching community that it has identified itself with, the union of primary teachers, the Prathmik Shikshak Sangh, gets its power from the sheer numbers that it represents, for there are almost one lakh primary schools in Uttar Pradesh as against ~7000 secondary schools.  Besides, teachers are very influential at the local level.  As they are among the few educated persons in a village, their voice carries a lot of weight.  Naturally, many political parties opt to choose teachers to be their district-in-charge.  In fact, Kingdon and Muzammil go so far as to assert, “Teachers in school (as opposed to higher) education have been instrumental in determining the local base of political parties in the state.”

There is, of course, a quid pro quo.  Legislators of the state assembly never hesitate to use their clout to get the administration to meet the teachers’ demands. Biennial strikes by teachers have been a part of the educational culture of Uttar Pradesh for nearly half a century, with the protests often lasting a month or more.  Between 1956 and 1994 there were at least 27 agitations, resulting in some significant laws being passed for the benefit of teachers (Kingdon & Muzammil, 2001).  Interestingly, in Uttar Pradesh, a good number of legislators are also teachers, and hence, do not stop with extending their moral support; they physically participate in the agitations as well[4].

Among the laws the teachers have managed to get passed over the years are the Salary Distribution Act of 1971, the U.P. Basic Education Act of 1972 and U.P. Secondary Education (Service Commission) Act of 1982.  These Acts had a fundamental and enduring impact on the salaries, appointments and service conditions of the teachers, making them more secure financially and tenure-wise, but at the same time holding them less accountable for their work as the centralization of the management freed them from local pressures to perform.  The result, according to Kingdon and Muzammil, has been promotion of the teachers’ self-interests at great cost to the students: The union-related activities eat into the teaching time, disrupting classes; the election of teachers to the legislature leaves a vacuum in the school, which, however, is not filled as the teacher-legislators are not legally bound to resign and, hence, continue to draw their salaries as employees of the school; financial betterment of teachers has been privileged over improvement of school infrastructure and facilities resulting in diversion of scarce funds to meet teachers demands rather than school achievement goals[5].

That the findings of Kingdon and Muzammil, which are based on union activities in one particular Indian state, are generalisable and universal is evident from the fact that they find an echo in studies of teachers’ unions from across the world.  Raise salaries, reduce class sizes, block reforms, protect teachers from dismissal, irrespective of their lack of effectiveness/ competence  – these are the teacher union demands that have come in for maximum censure.   Some recent studies in the United States and recent debates in the U.S. media over the role of teachers’ unions in holding teachers in state-run schools accountable for their professional behaviour and proficiency, provide a comparative perspective.


Teachers’ Unions and Student Performance: Help or Hindrance?

On the basis of empirical research, Dr. Randall Eberts, President of the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, concludes that public spending on education in the U.S. goes up by more than 15% because of the collective bargaining by teachers unions (Eberts, 2007).  However, the higher operating cost is not commensurate with the returns to education in terms of student achievement or school performance, he says, though he concedes that there is not enough research directly linking unionization with student achievement. According to Eberts’ study, a major area of intervention by the union, which has had a direct, negative impact on education, is the unions’ ability to shield its members from accountability for their performance.  This factor has also come in for much public criticism in recent months, especially in New York, where the administration is bent on  bringing in radical changes in its contract[6] with the unions once it comes up for renewal.

One of the major reasons for the New York administration’s doggedness in this regard is that it spent about $ 30 million in 2008-09 to pay the salaries of about 600 teachers who had not been attending school for an average of three years (Phillips, 2010).  These teachers, all accused of various misdemeanours – from coming drunk or drugged to class, to hitting or molesting a student, to incompetency – have been lodged in temporary reassignment centres, called ‘rubber rooms,’ waiting to have their cases heard.  As per the contractual norms of the union with the New York administration, no teacher can be dismissed without a hearing by a state-appointed, union-approved, arbitrator, and till such a hearing comes to pass, the teacher is to spend the school hours (normally 8.30 a.m. to 3.30 p.m.) in a rubber room instead of in the class room.  It takes two to five years for a case to be heard out and until the charges are resolved, the teachers will continue to draw their normal salaries, though instead of their normal teaching duties, they will be playing board games and card games and reading newspapers in the rubber rooms.  Arbitrators rarely recommend dismissal – there have been only eight dismissals in two years, and the other teachers simply get back to school – as their appointments have to be approved by the unions every year and the unions are said to keep a ‘score card’ (Klein, 2010).

Teachers’ unions have also come in for a lot of flak for opposing performance-based salary increments and promotions (Lavy, 2007), for being concerned about their narrow self-interests, to the exclusion of substantive issues impacting education such as professional training for self-improvement and funds for school libraries (Rudra, 1987), and, in democracies, for using their vote as a weapon to push through policies that they favour and block those that they perceive as coercive (Eberts, 2007). However, while these objective assessments of teachers unions are important, it is also necessary to see the union activities from the perspective of the unions’ distinct identity.  Teachers’ unions are, after all, modelled on trade unions.  Their premise, therefore, is that labour and capital have conflicting interests, and they see their primary role as protecting their members from the unrealistic demands of the employers.  The right to strike is their strength. The frequency and duration of the strike is not their concern; getting the employer to accede to their demands is.

Another common criticism levelled against teachers’ unions is that unionization leads to increase in inputs (teacher salaries and benefits) without commensurate returns in productivity (school performance in terms of working days and student performance), which remains static or even declines.  However, this needs to be weighed against the plight of non-unionised teachers, especially from private, recognised schools, who, according to Kingdon herself, are paid less than what is due to them by law (Kingdon & Teal, 2008).  It is also not unusual to find classrooms filled to more than capacity, as norms are thrown to the winds and as many as 20% more than the mandated number of students are accommodated, often in multi-grade classes.  Studies in the US have found that student-teacher ratios are 7% to 12% lower for unionized teachers than for those who do not belong to any union (Eberts, 2007).  Besides, most teachers unions had their origins in the efforts of teachers to group together, to mobilise, to protest unfair practices of the management, poor working conditions, low wages and failure of the school managements to accord dignity to teachers[7].

However, now that teachers’ unions are no longer a nascent force, but powerful enough to decide the contours of public education, I would like to conclude by arguing that it is time they stepped out of the shadow of their political beginnings and forged links with other civil society organizations to realise socially significant objectives rather than personal political objectives.  The social legitimacy they are likely to gain from this makeover in their priorities may, ultimately, provide them with political legitimacy in their own right, should they desire it.



There have been many examples, the world over, of teachers’ unions’ tryst with public causes.

In Korea, in the first half of the 20th century, when Japanese colonised the country and tried to destroy the Korean language and culture by taking over school education, the members of the Korean Teachers’ Union thwarted the Japanese hegemonic intentions by voluntarily opening evening schools to teach Korea’s children their language and culture.  More recently, concerned over the parents’ obsession with entrance exams and the pressure they put on their wards to succeed in these exams, the Korean Federation of Education Associations (KFEA) and Chon’kyojo, a banned teachers union, called for an end to exam-driven education.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) was among the first organizations to extend full membership to minorities and call for equal pay to African-American teachers.  They also demanded that black children be given equal educational opportunities and that schools include lessons on African-American contributions to the culture and economy of America. The National Education Association (NEA) of the U.S.A. also fought racism, refusing to hold its assemblies in cities that discriminated against delegates, based on race.

In Britain, the officers of the National Union of Teachers of the United Kingdom are regarded so erudite that ministries send their draft policies pertaining to education to the union, encouraging them to comment freely on the proposals, and thus participate actively in policy-making, though there is no legal requirement to consult the unions.  And, during the summit of the G20 to deliberate on the global financial meltdown in March 2009, 35,0000 members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, UK, marched through London to ‘tell’ the G20 nations to ‘put the people first,’ to think of ‘justice, jobs and a low carbon future.’

These random examples of atypical union activities affirm that “Unions are unique civic associations that [could] play a decisive role in balancing and configuring the relationships between the state, the economy, and civil society  (Lee, 2007).”  This is an identity that teachers unions would do well to reclaim for themselves.  One way of doing this could be to strengthen inter-organizational linkages and linkages with society using the very tools of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) that they have been employing, savvily, to network and campaign for bread-and-butter issues. Teachers’ unions can, and, perhaps, should, make a lasting impact on the way education is done by creating public awareness and bringing to bear public pressure on the administration to make educational policies that are in the long-term interests of the students and the people at large.


Eberts, Randall W, ‘Teachers Unions and Student Performance: Help or Hindrance?’ The Future of Children,

Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring 2007, Princeton-Brookings.

Kingdon, Geeta Gandhi & Muzammil, Mohammed, ‘A Political Economy of Education in India: The Case of

Uttar Pradesh  – I & II,’ Economic and Political Weekly, August 11 and 18, 2001.

Kingdon, G.G., Teal, Francis, ‘Teacher Unions, Teacher Pay and Student Performance in India: A Pupil Fixed

Effects Approach,’ CESIFO working paper 2428, Category 4: Labour Markets, October 2008.

Klein, Joe, ‘Why We’re Failing Our Schools,’ Time, January 28, 2010.

http://www.time.com/time/politics/article/0,8599,1957277,00.html (Accessed on April 5, 2010).

Lavy, Victor, ‘Using Performance-based Pay to Improve the Quality of Teachers,’ The Future of Children, Vol. 17, No.

1, Spring 2007, Princeton-Brookings.

Lee, Cheol-Sung, ‘Labor Unions and Good Governance: A Cross-National, Comparative Analysis,’ American

Sociological Review, Vol. 72, No. 4, Aug., 2007.

Phillips, Anna, ‘Teachers Unions and City in Talks to Shrink Rubber Rooms,’ March 15, 2010.

http://gothamschools.org (Accessed on April 5, 2010)

Rudra, Ashok, ‘Teachers Strike: A Dissenting View,’ Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 22, No. 49, December 5,


[1] I am here equating values/ ideals with goals and principles/ ideology with beliefs.

[3] Established in 1921, as the U.P Secondary Teachers Association.

[4] U.P. has a bicameral legislature.  There have been ~15 teacher representatives in every Legislative Council of ~108 members and ~19 elected teachers in every Legislative Assembly of ~430 members, i.e. about 14% and 4.5% of the strength of the respective houses (prior to the bifurcation of the state in 2000).

[5] Between 1960 and 1981, at all levels, there was a steep drop in the amount spent on non-salary expenditure in total educational expenditure: from 12% to 3% in primary education; from 15% to 6% in junior education; and from 28% to 10% in secondary education (Kingdon & Muzammil, 2001, p. 3184).  In 1990-91, to meet the demands of the teachers, the budgetary estimates for education were revised upwards by about 30%; at the same time, the non-education expenditure declined by 8% as the government was under severe financial constraint and was forced to reduce overall expenditure (ibid, p. 3057).

[6] All states in the USA have teachers’ unions (which represent 67% of the country’s 3 million active public elementary and secondary school teachers) and collective bargaining is permissible in thirty five states.  In all these states, the unions enter into contracts with the administration every two or three years.

[7] K L Shrimali cited in KIngdon and Muzammil, 2001, p. 3059.

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