Collective Bargaining Ignores Teacher Excellence

Heritage Foundation Research Fellow James Sherk testifies before the Nevada legislature on how monopoly bargaining ignores teacher excellence and undermines representative government.

Collective bargaining in government takes away the final say on public policy from voters’ elected representatives. It forces them to negotiate a contract with union leaders, excluding all other citizens and potential workers from the bargaining table. Consequently, voters’ representatives do not fully control spending and tax decisions. They must reach agreement with union leaders unaccountable to the general public.

For example, voters could elect school board members who campaign on a platform of merit pay for good teachers, meaningful performance evaluations, and trimming employee benefits in order to reduce property taxes. Collective bargaining takes away elected representatives’ power to implement such an agenda. They must obtain the consent of government unions strongly opposed to these policies. If the government and unions disagree, unelected arbitrators have final say over public policy—irrespective of the wishes of the voters’ representatives.

This happened to the Clark County School District (CCSD) in 2012. The school district faced a financial shortfall and had to choose between laying off hundreds of teachers or forgoing pay increases that year. The district’s elected officials wanted to avoid layoffs, but the union insisted on raises. The issue went to arbitration where the arbitrator sided with the union. This forced the CCSD to lay off a thousand teachers.[5]

These layoffs included Edward Savarese, a newly hired fifth-grade teacher at Sewell Elementary School. Savarese’s ability to help underperforming children won him recognition as “New Teacher of the Year.” The District wanted to keep Savarese at Sewell Elementary. However, the union seniority system required CCSD to lay him off instead.[6]

Collective bargaining undermines the principle of voter sovereignty. Elected officials—not unions—should control government operations. Elected officials should decide if teachers like Edward Savarese keep their job or not.

Unelected union officers should not make those decisions. Union leaders once believed this, too. As recently as 1959, the AFL-CIO Executive Council stated flatly that “[i]n terms of accepted collective bargaining procedures, government workers have no right beyond the authority to petition Congress—a right available to every citizen.”[7]