America’s teachers’ unions are offering another masterclass in dishonesty. Following post-pandemic strikes in blue cities like Minneapolis, Oakland, and Sacramento, teachers in Portland, Oregon—where the average educator earns $87,000 for 192 days of work—spent the better part of November on a picket line.
Mind you, Portland is the same place whose public-education system kept students out of school for longer than nearly any other big-city district during the pandemic. Portland’s students remain far behind academically, and chronic absenteeism in city schools has doubled since the pandemic began. The school system has seen massive enrollment losses.
Against this backdrop, the city’s teachers’ union, the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT), decided that this was a good time to strike, even claiming that walking off the job was in the best interest of Portland students. “I’m so proud of our teachers in Portland, Oakland, Los Angeles and all across this country who are standing up and using collective bargaining for the common good,” National Education Association (NEA) president Becky Pringle said.
Pringle’s remarks highlight a newly revived strategy that unions are employing around the country: couching their advocacy as efforts to promote “the common good.” The unions’ playbook involves lobbying for non-salary demands that still wind up bolstering teachers’ bottom lines, while downplaying the union’s self-interested objectives. By doing so, unions can claim that they are not really focused on teacher pay but on other spending measures that have downstream benefits for students. Portland teacher Tiffany Koyoma-Lane summarized the argument this way to justify the strike: “I truly believe our [teachers’] working conditions are our students’ learning conditions.”
What the unions refer to as the common good is generally a smokescreen for progressive wish-list items, such as affordable student housing, racial equity, and reparations. It’s a ruse, and calls to mind H.L. Mencken’s famous dictum that “when somebody says it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.”
My own research bears Mencken out. In a new report examining thousands of California school-board elections, I found unions’ support for incumbent school-board members was not correlated with whether the incumbent board presided over improvements in students’ academic achievement. Instead, the only factor that proved a statistically significant driver of unions’ backing for incumbents was whether the board gave senior teachers a big pay raise during the year prior to the election.
And while unions often talk a big game on racial equity, their endorsement decisions were statistically unrelated to boards’ progress in closing racial achievement gaps in schools. In other words, while unions reliably rewarded incumbent school board members who raised teachers’ pay in an election year, they did not reward school boards that narrowed test-score gaps between white, black, and Hispanic students.
The reality that student-learning outcomes rarely factor into union political advocacy was on full display in Portland this month. This strike wasn’t about students, but salaries; the union won a 14 percent cost-of-living increase. In the end, while Portland students haven’t seen the inside of a classroom since Halloween, PAT’s trick was apparently worth the treat: over half of Portland teachers will now earn six-figure salaries for their 193-day work year once the new contract is in place.
Anything for the children!