Teacher unions say they’re fighting for students and schools – what they really want is more members

When schoolteachers in Los Angeles went on a weeklong strike in January, the head of the local teachers union described it as a “battle for the soul of public education.” When Denver public school teachers went on a three-day strike in February, they did it in the name of “schools Denver students deserve.”

When teachers began their strike in Oakland on Feb. 26, the local teachers union repeated this message, voicing that they were “fighting for the schools Oakland students’ deserve” and in a struggle for the “soul of public education.” The Oakland teachers’ strike ended on March 1.

It’s true, many of the demands the unions are making will likely benefit students. But beneath the rallying cries, unions in the public sector are facing a new reality that suggests they are actually fighting for something else.

Ever since the Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME in 2018 that workers are free to choose whether to join a union, we’d argue that the teacher strikes have been as much a fight for the soul of the union as they are for the soul of public education. What the teachers’ unions really want and need is membership. As one political science professor told The New York Times: “Members and money are power in politics.”

The deals that teachers’ unions negotiate with school districts matter more than ever for maintaining their membership and political power in the post-Janus world. As education policy scholars who have studied teachers’ unions and teacher collective bargaining for over a decade, we have read thousands of agreements like the ones just negotiated in Los Angeles, Denver and Oakland.

Negotiating for numbers

The agreements that unions are securing establish teacher salaries, restrictions on the length of the workday, performance evaluation procedures and other important working conditions. But they also set staffing levels for teachers, librarians and counselors. In short, if unions can win at the bargaining table they can increase staffing. And if they can increase staffing, they can increase membership and ensure their future.

Consider the deal that the teachers’ union secured in Los Angeles. Along with a 6 percent salary increase – basically the school district’s offer long before the final contract was signed – the deal includes numerous staffing guarantees that equate to more membership for the Los Angeles teachers’ union: 300 nurses, 82 librarians, 77 counselors. The contract reduces class size by four students in grades 4 through 12 over the duration of the contract, requiring the school district to add new teachers.

Striking Los Angeles Unified District teachers are joined by parents and students in front of Evelyn Thurman Gratts Elementary School in Los Angeles in January. Richard Vogel
The Oakland teachers’ union used a similar playbook. The union secured an 11 percent raise over the next four years and a modest reduction in class size by the 2021-22 school year. Additionally, the new contract lowers the counselor-to-student ratio, establishes new caseload limits for school psychologists and speech and language pathologists, and increases staffing levels at schools with 50 or more students who are new to the country – all provisions that will require the district to add more educators. Finally, the union secured a five-month pause on school closures and consolidations, which will maintain current teaching and support staff positions at those schools.