What is a Teachers' Union?

What is a Teachers' Union?
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  • 0:04 Pro- or Anti-Union
  • 0:56 Defining a Teacher's Union
  • 1:50 Who Makes Up a Union?
  • 3:03 Teacher's Union Stances
  • 3:38 Teachers' Union Criticisms
  • 4:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Andrew Diamond

Andrew has worked as an instructional designer and adjunct instructor. He has a doctorate in higher education and a master's degree in educational psychology.

In this lesson, we'll cover some of the basic aspects of a teachers' union. We'll talk about the two largest teachers' unions in the country and discuss some of the benefits and criticisms of these unions. A short quiz follows the lesson.

Pro- or Anti-Union

Depending on where, when, and by whom you were raised, the word union can provoke many different reactions. To some, the idea of organized labor is downright diabolical, a quest by working-class citizens to gather power and overthrow the wealthy. It brings to mind Marxism, socialization of the power structure, and an authoritarian distribution of wealth. Sounds terrifying.

Others, however, view unions as the great equalizer, balancing the power of the elite with that of the masses. To these supporters, unions mean the eight-hour workday, an end to child labor, worker medical care, and an end to unsafe working conditions. I'll leave it up to you to do more research on organized labor and make up your own mind about its role in the economy. For now, let's concentrate on teachers' unions, their benefits, and a few of the criticisms surrounding them.

Defining a Teachers' Union

First, let's introduce the idea of a union. A union is an organization of workers who work to protect their rights and interests. Therefore, a teachers' union is an organization of teaching professionals who work to protect their rights and interests. It's as simple as that.

Unions engage in an activity known as collective bargaining, which is negotiation between employers and the union over a contract that determines working conditions, compensation, and benefits. If an agreement cannot be reached, a union can strike, or cause a mass work stoppage by refusing to work. The ability to present a unified front in collective bargaining is probably the single greatest strength of a union.

It's also important to note that membership in a union isn't free. Unions often, as part of the collective bargaining process, negotiate to deduct a small amount from members' salaries every paycheck to cover their union membership.

Who Makes Up a Union?

Odds are you interact with people who are in unions on a daily basis and don't even realize it. Additionally, some people are even in unions and don't really know it! A couple of the most populous unions include the Service Employees International Union, which is composed of janitors, security officers, local and state government workers, and child care providers, to name a few, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, whose members include construction workers, rail workers, some truck drivers, package handlers, and port employees. These two unions are the second and fourth largest unions in the United States. Would you like to guess what the first and third largest unions are? I'll give you a minute…

That's right - teachers' unions! The National Education Association of the United States, or the NEA, and the American Federation of Teachers, or the AFT, are the largest and third largest unions, respectively. The NEA's 3.2 million members are primarily public school teachers, administrators, higher education faculty members, and education support staff. The AFT has more than 1.5 million members and represents much of the same people, as well as some nurses and healthcare professionals.

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