Conservative politicians in the United States have rarely been fond of public-sector unions. And while right-leaning thinkers tend to be skeptical of unions writ large, many reserve their most fiery rhetoric for teachers unions in particular. Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie declared that teachers unions are “the single most destructive force in public education in America,” adding that they deserved a “political punch in the face.” Former GOP presidential hopeful John Kasich claims that teachers unions encourage educators to complain and worry about their benefits and pay, joking that if he were “king of America,” he would abolish all teachers’ lounges. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has repeatedly declared unions the “defenders of the status quo,” alleging that they do not have the best interests of children at heart. And most outrageously, hedge fund manager and Success Academy chair Daniel Loeb once wrote that teachers unions have “done more to perpetuate poverty and discrimination against people of color than the KKK.”
In reality, these analyses range from unfair to preposterous. Sociologist Robert Carini reviewed seventeen studies that collectively showed that teacher unionism “favorably influences achievement for most students, as measured by a variety of standardized tests.” This correlation is likely related to higher teacher morale, higher wages that can attract a talented labor pool, and smaller average class sizes that emerge from the collective bargaining process. Through their union locals, teachers throughout the country have organized against despicable and dangerous school facilities, gone on strike to demand more public services for marginalized students, protested for solutions to racially disproportionate student discipline, and fought for expanded early childhood education programs. This hardly sounds like an institution full of servants ready to don a hood and white robes.
Meanwhile, some of the same pundits and politicians who skewer teachers unions protect and defend another type of controversial public-sector union: police unions. While Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s administration oversaw a massive reduction in union bargaining power that led to average pay reductions of 10 percent, it spared the State Patrol Union this lessening of power—in fact, the union proceeded to negotiate a 17-percent pay increase for its members. When the Michigan legislature pushed through its “right to work” laws, weakening public-sector unions, it notably provided an exemption for unionized police forces. In order to dismantle unions without going after the police, Iowa Republicans proposed a bill that would split unionized public-sector workers into two categories: public safety workers, and everyone else. The current governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner, heartily criticized unions but proposed cutting a “special deal” to preserve police and firefighter pensions.
This propensity to give to the goose but take from the gander does not arise because police unions are particularly idyllic institutions. They are, in fact, the black sheep of the labor movement, steeped in controversy due to their commitment to (and success at) protecting its members at nearly any cost. Police unions have closed ranks around officers accused of patterns of violence, fought tooth-and-nail against Obama-era consent decrees, rejected citizen review boards for misconduct allegations, and often allow offices to purge their disciplinary records, making it difficult for both civilians and other police to identify officers who have a history of unsavory or abusive behavior. In many cases, finalized police union contracts erect seemingly insurmountable barriers to accountability. And none of the above seems to bother those on the right, least among them our commander-in-chief: Donald Trump now infamously implied encouragement of police brutality at a speech to the Fraternal Order of Police, the largest police labor union.
So why this disparity between conservative support for police unions and teachers unions? For all of their structural similarities as imperfect, but service-oriented, unions, these institutions differ in three significant ways: who composes their membership, how they behave politically, and the ways in which they define and practice “service.”
Demographics, Gender, and the Value of Work
Though gender ratios are shifting in each profession, the teaching force remains heavily female, while the police force is overwhelmingly male. During the 2011–2012 academic year, 76 percent of public school teachers identified as female, according to federal data. Among local officers in 2013, 87.8 percent were male. These data reflect larger trends: the National Women’s Law Center, AAUW, and other experts on gender and employment have produced evidence that the gendered wage gap not only exists within a profession, but also persists between them. Regardless of difficulty or educational requirements, occupations that were traditionally considered “women’s work” pay less and carry less prestige. And not only do women-dominated jobs have lower average wages, as greater numbers women move into male dominated fields, those wages stagnate for everyone.
However, across multiple levels of government, conservative lawmakers have denied or defended this phenomenon. John Kasich and other GOP politicians chalked the wage gap up to differences in skill and experience. Others have offered even less measurable explanations. Wisconsin congressman Glenn Grothman theorized that money might just be more important for men. “I think a guy in their first job, maybe because they expect to be a breadwinner someday, may be a little more money conscious,” he reasoned.
But teachers certainly don’t lack skills or credentials. In a job that requires at least a bachelor’s degree, 55 percent of public school teachers have a masters degree or higher. By comparison, only 23 percent of local police departments even require candidates to obtain a two-year associate’s degree; about 2 percent of departments require four-year degrees. And women—teachers or otherwise—have ample reason to be concerned about wages, benefits, and their careers. Not only is the notion of the universal male breadwinner culturally and philosophically out of date, it dangerously overlooks the fact that women are far more likely to be single parents than men (77 percent of single parents are women), making wage equity critical to both their own well-being and that of their children.
Not only is the notion of the universal male breadwinner culturally and philosophically out of date, it dangerously overlooks the fact that women are far more likely to be single parents than men.
Police officers, compared to other salaried workers, are disproportionately well-compensated. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in twenty-five of fifty states, police are paid 150 percent or more of the median salary—not including their union negotiated overtime pay, which is itself an anomaly among salaried professionals. Meanwhile, the salary difference between teachers and comparable public workers is widening. A report by the Economic Policy Institute discovered that the weekly wages of American public school teachers were 17 percent lower than comparable college-educated professionals. The study revealed that this gap is partially mitigated by collective bargaining; teachers not represented by a union had a -25.5 percent wage gap.
In summary, the jobs that women perform—among which teaching could be counted—are perceived as less rigorous and as fitting into their natural roles as nurturers. If one does not respect the rigor of a job and its training, bargaining for higher wages and benefits seems indulgent and superfluous. Police officers, on the other hand, benefit from the same prevailing structural inequities. Not only are they—an overwhelmingly male profession—compensated more than comparable professionals, but also, that additional compensation is legally protected in ways that their professional peers could only dream of.
Politics and Shared Interests
Politicians need to keep the constituents—and donors—happy. While teachers-union support and endorsements are overwhelmingly directed to Democrats, police unions typically support Republican candidates. The Fraternal Order of Police endorsed George W. Bush in 2000 and in 2004, John McCain in 2008, and Donald Trump in 2016. This conservative endorsement pattern carried into gubernatorial races across the country. (The union did not issue a presidential endorsement in 2012.) Relatedly, police unions frequently back Republican-led proposals, including the controversial and legally disputed Arizona immigration bill, SB 1070. This level of GOP partisan advocacy is a notable anomaly within the larger labor movement, where most unionized workers identify as left-leaning.
Not only does police union support encourage a solid voting and mobilization block, it also advances a powerful political optic: This candidate is tough on crime. “Tough on crime” policies have propelled conservatives, and several liberals, to political success. With the rise of the violent crime rate in the 1960s, combined with changing racial and ethnic power dynamics, the GOP positioned itself as the “law-and-order” party—one with the backing of the police to bolster that image. Even today, as national crime rates sit dramatically lower, this legacy continues, bolstered by sensationalized pontificating about a vast criminal strain on America. In this, the Republican party and the police share an interest in the perception of pervasive crime: that narrative feeds GOP platforms in election cycles while amplifying police union calls for tighter contracts, bigger weapons, and better pay. The two institutions help one another.
The Racialization of Service
Workers in both of these public-sector unions maintain responsibilities that shape communities in critical ways. The police force functions to protect citizens and secure people’s rights, while the teaching force is tasked with preparing citizens and educating them about their rights and the rights of others. Both teachers and police officers possess the power to make judgements and decisions that directly impact citizens in order to achieve their ends. Yet the two professions differ in the type of power possessed, and in how we—the public—perceive the recipient of that power.
While the police swear to protect and serve all people, politicians and the media have successfully cultivated a false narrative of black and brown criminality, of minorities being the group that society needs to be protected from. According to the 2016 PRRI American Values Survey, close to half of Americans (46 percent) said that the growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens traditional American customs and values, while 44 percent said that immigrants strengthen our society. (73 percent of Republicans agreed with the former statement.) Meanwhile, a majority of white Americans (56 percent) say that America has changed for the worse since the 1950s. Predictably, black (62 percent) and Hispanic (57 percent) say that society has improved since 1950—an era plagued with de jure, legally-enforceable racial segregation; legal unequal pay; racial voter disenfranchisement, such as poll taxes and literacy tests; prohibitions on interracial marriages; and housing segregation.
A report by the Sentencing Project found that white Americans overestimate the proportion of crime committed by people of color and associate them with criminality. For example, white respondents in a 2010 survey overestimated the actual share of burglaries, illegal drug sales, and juvenile crimes committed by black people by 20 to 30 percentage points. In another study, 60 percent of viewers of a crime story that contained no image of the perpetrator claimed that they saw one anyway; of those, 70 percent described him as black. This report also determined that white people who held these biases were more likely to advocate for harsh punishment such as the death penalty or mandatory minimums.
Police power, to many, is the mechanism to ensure not justice, but order—wherein “order” means not safety for all, but a dogged adherence to what once was. And the disrupters to that order are immigrant, black, and brown folks, gaining in numbers and influence. That’s why, despite a reservoir of data that proves the existence of racial bias at every level in the criminal justice system, the majority of whites—and the overwhelming majority of conservatives—reject the evidence. To them, disruption of order—however antiquated that vision of order might be—feels like a form of criminality.
Of course, it’s unfair to claim that support of the police and its union is always and exclusively tied to racial animus. But the persistence of that animus in the minds of too many makes it easier for politicians to elevate the police work of maintaining “order” while dismissing as inconsequential any police work that abuses the bodies of the disrupters. As a result, police unions have escaped widespread conservative condemnation despite the fact that departments in New York City, Chicago, Ferguson, San Francisco, Greensboro, and more show clear racial disparities in who they stop, search, and detain; that the probability of being shot by the police while unarmed is 3.49 times higher if the victim is black rather than white; and that their representation often shields police officers from accountability—even in cases with strong damning evidence in the form of video footage. In fact, police unions have largely even escaped conservative calls for basic reform.
While “order” remains an element in public education, it is not—and should not become—its main objective.
On the other hand, teachers unions bear the brunt of conservative criticism. While “order” remains an element in public education, it is not—and should not become—its main objective. The purpose of education is to prepare young people to thrive in and contribute to a changing society. Teachers equip students with the base knowledge to ask important questions, navigate complex problems and apply creative ideas to them, and to express themselves in a multitude of ways. As the population of public school students is now less than 50 percent white, unionized public school teachers are tasked with imbuing these black and brown children with knowledge, speech, skills, confidence, power, and curiosity. These same traits are the tools necessary for the disruption that polling shows conservatives dread.
Certainly, teachers unions can implement reforms. For example, peer assistance and review programs could offer a better way to train, and if necessary, terminate ineffective teachers. States and unions should also be more thoughtful about the duration of teacher probationary periods before granting tenure. But even with this room for growth, teachers—and the unions that represent them—provide children with the foundational knowledge to become thoughtful, contributing citizens. In fact, without a healthy teaching force, the work of police would become more difficult.
It is irrational to offer only criticism to teachers unions while remaining uncritical of a union that consistently turns a blind eye to the misbehavior of its members—members who have the unique power to exercise deadly force, or to deprive their fellow citizens of their freedom.
Public-sector unions of all kinds are important democratic institutions, giving workers a voice with which they can check state power, and contributing to a strong middle class. Simultaneously, public union workers maintain an obligation to serve the public with fairness and integrity. Leaders who apply these principles to some unions but not to others are playing politics with not only workers’ advancement, but also with society’s.