Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

What are the Responsibilities of Teachers Unions?

Theodore Williams III and Mackenzie Harmon


By Theodore Williams III and Mackenzie Harmon

July 28, 2014

When considering the right roles and responsibilities of teachers unions, it is first necessary to understand the role unions hold in a differentiated society. Unions represent diverse groups such as teachers, policemen, firefighters, hospital workers, and many others who provide vital services. Examples of this representation include collective bargaining, health and safety measures, and political activity. Unions exist for and are primarily responsible to their members.

Members must have the ability to participate in the union, or to not participate, as they see fit. Because unions are involved in matters of law and because they take political action, they have additional responsibilities. Unions whose members include state employees (including most teachers) have an even greater level of public responsibility because their actions can either help or hinder the state’s pursuit of justice for all people. 

Because of this, when we consider the right roles and responsibilities of teachers unions, we need to think about both their responsibilities to their members and their more general responsibilities to the public. We also need to consider how teachers themselves have responsibilities to the unions and to the wider political community. 

Teachers unions exist to ensure that schools treat teachers justly. They provide a variety of services to their members, including setting wages and work conditions, representing workers in employment disputes, and protecting pensions. All of these activities work towards an environment where educators can thrive both personally and professionally. 

The largest function of a teachers union is to ensure that employees have the best possible work conditions. Union dues are used for this purpose, as well as for political advocacy, lobbying, and campaigning for political candidates.

Traditionally, unions have been classified as “voluntary organizations.” In voluntary organizations, workers can freely choose whether or not to participate, and only those who desire representation are required to pay dues. However, the designation of teachers unions as voluntary associations is controversial. In some states, unions have successfully argued that all teachers benefit from the efforts of the union and should be required to pay dues. This is the case in about half of the states in the United States.

Beyond their responsibilities to their members, teachers unions must also cooperate with parents, schools, and the wider public in school reform efforts. Administrators, political leaders, teachers, and parents should all have a voice in vital conversations about securing quality education for young people. Each one of these groups is a participant, or “stakeholder,” in our education system. Unions play a critical role in representing the common interests of teachers, but union interests must be considered along with those of other stakeholders in order to reach just outcomes for all involved.

When viewed correctly, the responsibility of unions to pursue justice for teachers should not threaten the responsibility of parents to secure quality education for their children or that of schools to foster student learning. In fact, these missions ideally work hand in hand. Meaningful cooperation between parents, school administrators, and teachers unions can increase teacher effectiveness and improve student learning outcomes. On the other hand, when teachers unions protect poor instruction or complacency in the classroom, they do children and the greater community a grave disservice.

When it comes to the difficult education reform questions of the day, teachers unions should respect the diversity of opinions held by their own members, as well as by other groups. Sadly, cooperation between unions, parents, schools, and the general public is rare. In cities across the nation, the climate surrounding school reform is full of vitriol, where fights over a host of issues including teacher accountability, school funding, and school closings are regularly front-page news. Interest groups often stake their territory and dig in to unmovable ideological positions. 

In light of this, we need a strong and renewed vision for educational diversity, one that recognizes all stakeholders while embracing a spirit of collaboration and compromise. Such a vision may be the only path to true reform.

A version of this article originally appeared in CPJ's Christians Investing in Education newsletter. You can sign up for these emails here.

Theodore Williams III is Professor of Political Science in the City Colleges of Chicago. Mackenzie Harmon is an intern at the Center for Public Justice and a student at Covenant College.

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”