SADOW: So, How Much Influence Do Teacher Unions Have In Louisiana Politics?

Long predating the bogus “fact check” mania spawned in recent times by the mainstream media, for a number of years the Baton Rouge Advocate has run a version of it called “Ask the Advocate,” providing some kinds of answers to questions presumably generated from stories in the newspaper. However, the answers don’t always accurately capture the meaning and context of the issue in reference, which can mislead when the discussion is politics.

A case in point regards its explanation of teacher union presence in Louisiana. The relevant part of the article reads: “Q. There has been a lot of talk lately about teacher unions. How many parishes in Louisiana actually recognize collective bargaining for teachers? A. Seven of Louisiana’s 70 school districts have collective bargaining rights with one of Louisiana’s two teacher unions.” It then lists the districts and whether it is the Louisiana Federation of Teachers or the Louisiana Association of Educators that represents in each.

Of slight annoyance, the snippet implies that only 7/70 = 10 percent of teachers enter into collective bargaining. In fact, the proportion is a bit higher, the latest figure available being 11.6 percent. More perturbing, the way the question is phrased, focusing solely on collective bargaining, restricts the inquiry into the implied part of the question – there is “a lot of talk about teacher unions” because they are inserting themselves forcefully into the political process, which goes far beyond just collective bargaining. (It also negates the fact that there actually are three statewide unions, the other being the Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana, which has no collective bargaining units established and declines to identify itself only as a union saying it is a broader professional organization).

It also does not include the presence of an American Federation of Teachers arm, the United Teachers of New Orleans, which found its power retracted in the dislocations following the 2005 hurricane disasters (and which it claims caused illegal dismissals of union members). It has been trying to coerce collective bargaining out of the diminished Orleans Parish School District and has advocated for the district expand through transfer of schools from the Recovery School District with which it cannot bargain. Regaining status as a collective bargaining unit, while it would not rule Orleans schools with an iron fist as it once did, would serve to increase the state’s proportion of teachers that are part of the collective bargaining process.

But UTNO provides an object lesson in wielding influence in the workplace without acting as a bargaining unit. It crows about how it has modified, drawing upon its past power, practices in both the OPSD and RSD schools. The Advocate’s diminution of the issue, intentional or otherwise, fails to capture this nonpecuniary aspect of the importance of unions politically.

And it also completely ignores the pecuniary way in which directly teacher unions may influence politics. The most recent data showed just in campaign contributions from their last annual reports through a decade back the LFT and LAE gave almost $5.5 million to state candidates. They get this money from dues (for those members who do not request that money not go to political advocacy), which come from members all over the state. In fact, earlier this year the LFT claimed it has as members about a third of all classroom teachers, while the LAE did not make such an exact statement but might have at least half as many. Throw in A+PEL members, and approaching two-thirds of classroom teachers are members of a union, explaining why the LFT and LAE can draw upon substantial financial resources not only to donate, but also to pay for other lobbying activities.

So to narrow the question frame to just collective bargaining dramatically understates the power that teacher unions have in politics in Louisiana, that relative power explaining why their activities have become so newsworthy and would generate the perceived question. Thus, the Advocate’s reductionist approach misleads the casual reader who might otherwise by the answer take away the wrong impression that concern about union influence in Louisiana politics is unwarranted.

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