How Teachers Unions Became Political
Published May 23, 2023
In the 1950s, teachers’ unions were not politically active. Most members believed that they should not engage in political activities beyond voting. However, in the 1960s and 1970s, state governments introduced public sector labor laws that empowered public employees like teachers to collectively bargain with state and local governments. This gave unions the ability to mobilize teachers politically, which has allowed them to shape education policy in the United States.
- Watch “Hoover Book Club: How Policies Make Interest Groups: Governments, Unions, And American Education,” an episode of Hoover Book Club. Available here.
- Watch “Vouchers and Education Reform,” with Terry Moe on PolicyEd. Available here.
- Watch “How to Reverse Pandemic-Related Learning Losses,” with Eric Hanushek on PolicyEd. Available here.
When did teachers’ unions become so powerful in politics?
They didn’t always have the power they have today. In fact, while researching my book I discovered surveys done in the 1950s by the National Education Association – the largest teachers union in the country. They revealed that most teachers back then believed that political activity, outside of voting in presidential elections, was not something they should engage in.
This was surprising, considering that today, teachers and their unions are among the most politically active groups in school board elections, making endorsements and contributing significantly to political campaigns.
In the 1950s, 75% of NEA members believed it was inappropriate for teachers to even discuss with their colleagues which school board members to support. So, there's this huge puzzle here, how did that all come to change?
The answer I found, in short, was that government intervention was the key factor in this shift. In the 1960s and 1970s, state governments began adopting public sector labor laws that empowered public employees, including teachers, to collectively bargain with state and local governments.
This was a defining moment that allowed unions to mobilize teachers in politics and amass a large political war chest, which has allow them shape education policy in the United States.