We Should Have Broken the Union

March 7, 2011


Indiana legislators have received thousands of letters and email messages from concerned teachers, principals and superintendents. Many are politically generated by special-interest groups. Most, though, are from dedicated educators whose passion for the classroom is made clear in every word.

Yet, I disagree with almost all of their conclusions.

As a new member of the legislature, it surprises me so many of these writers, some personal friends, believe I would leave them vulnerable to an unfair evaluation system developed and managed by state bureaucrats.

I am working every day to keep that from happening.

Many express a fear that I would “break” the teachers union and end mandatory public-sector collective bargaining.

Yes, that’s exactly what I would do, what we should have done. There’s no good reason for public-sector unions to exist — for teachers or for students.

“There never was a ‘labor problem’ in government for unions to solve,” writes Dr. Morgan Reynolds, former chief economist for the U.S. Department of Labor. “Government has always been a model — read generous — employer, lavishing good pay, the eight-hour day, fringe benefits and civil-service protections on its own.”

The unions support a dynamic that drives our best teachers out of the classroom while attracting the mediocre and the misplaced. They push up costs by increasing staffing levels. They oppose the use of budget-saving volunteers. They create a bureaucratic and inefficient workplace, discouraging bold innovation.

Again, the letters on my desk, heartfelt and sincere, offer no good reason for teachers unions to exist.

Educators in a dozen other states go to class every day without any collective bargaining whatsoever. Twenty-two states have “right-to-work” laws that free workers from being forced to join a union or pay union dues.

Some argue that Indiana is being outpaced by those states.

“Unionism seems to coincide with poor state government management,” argues Chris Edwards of the Cato Institute. “States with higher public-sector union shares tend to have higher levels of government debt. And the states with higher union shares do more poorly on grading by the Pew Center regarding the quality of public-sector management.”

The laws of economics cannot be suspended by decree. What some of my letter writers think of as their “rights” inevitably translate into fewer opportunities, lower pay, less job security and certainly less freedom for all teachers, especially the accomplished.

For taxpayers, collective bargaining adds an estimated eight percent to the cost of state government. And there are other apposite bits of information missing from the public discussion.

First, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 establishing a “right” to collective bargaining does not apply to teachers or any other workers in the public sector. There are so many legal, political and economic differences between public-sector unions and the private-sector model they shouldn’t be called “unions” at all.

And please know that Indiana’s Collective Bargaining Act was a political compromise, not an assertion of constitutional right. It was passed into law only a generation ago with the blessing of a Republican governor in exchange for property-tax reforms. Former Lt. Gov. John Mutz, then a state senator, played a key role in that decision. He now says it was one of the worst mistakes of his career.

The property-tax reforms were subsequently undermined but collective bargaining lived on. Its unintended consequences mount. Its disincentives are reaffirmed each session by Democrats and Republicans alike. We created a professional class of politician dependent on the teachers union, actively or passively, for their Statehouse employment.

Which brings me to my core objection. No, it is not because Indiana government is under financial stress. Indeed, I agree with the protesters that teachers should not be singled out in balancing a state budget.

Nor could I name a state superintendent who could command teachers to do a better job or do it more efficiently. Nor would I withhold full reward from those who now do it so successfully.

I object because public-sector unions corrupt our state government and the democratic process.

The Indiana State Teachers Union is allowed to use its statutory privilege as a political machine. It controls the full range of policy debate in Indianapolis. We would abide such power in no other privately controlled organization.

Dr. Charlie Rice, professor emeritus of Notre Dame Law School, explains why:

“Mandatory collective bargaining for any employees of government involves multiple distortions of sound policy and practice. It confers on an unaccountable financially interested private entity — the certified union — a portion of the lawmaking authority of the state. In the process, the interests of the public employees are subordinate to the interests of a privileged union. This is compounded when the bargaining unit is the public school and the ‘products’ of the enterprise are not nuts and bolts but vulnerable school children.”

The writers of the letters on my desk should know that none of this necessarily means lowering education standards or even providing less money for public education — not a single dime less.

Rather, it means recognizing that no coherent rationale for public-sector bargaining has ever been offered.

It means allowing workers to freely choose whether they want to belong to a union and pay its dues as their sole bargaining agent.

It means moving the decision-making process away from the Statehouse or even the superintendent’s office and toward principals and teachers deciding what is best in their particular school buildings.

Last week, a legislative study group heard Lisa Snell of Reason Foundation explain how all that is happening in Louisiana under Gov. Bobby Jindal. There, school funding can be attached to the student and not the administrative district. Individual teachers and principals are thereby freed to design curriculum to fit the needs of students. Such true systemic reform is happening throughout the nation.

I must tell you, though, it is not happening enough in Indiana — even under measures proposed this session by my own political party.  We have only begun to summon the courage to dip so much as a toe in the waters of reform.

This is true even as a Feb. 27 Rasmussen report found that although Americans generally believe public education is a good investment, 61 percent say public schools have become worse over the past decade. Another 17 percent say they are unsure whether it has gotten worse or better.

Think about that. Despite spending levels that threaten the financial solvency of so many states, and despite government’s full power to license, regulate, consolidate and monopolize, less than a quarter of Americans can say public schools have improved.

My disagreement with the letters on my desk carries with it the responsibility to change that — at least for Indiana.

The unions had their chance. They failed.

Sen. Jim Banks (R-Columbia City) represents state Senate District 17.


Arthur Laffer, Stephen Moore and Jonathan Williams. “Rich State, Poor States: Alec-Laffer State Economic Competitiveness Index.” The American Legislative Exchange Council, April 7, 2010.

Chris Edwards. “Madison Protests: Unions Are Angry — But Wisconsin Should Go Even Further.” The Christian Science Monitor, Feb. 18, 2011.

Edwards. “Public-Sector Unions and the Rising Costs of Employee Compensation.” Cato Journal, winter 2010.

Scott Rasmussen. “Americans Agree That Public-School Quality Has Fallen.” The Rasmussen Reports, Feb. 27, 2011.

Charles E. Rice. “Fixing Public Schools.” The Indiana Policy Review, spring 2010.

Morgan Reynolds and Craig Ladwig. “Why Collective Bargaining Is no Bargain.” The Indiana Policy Review, winter 1991.


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