This Wednesday, more than 15,000 teachers are expected to march on the state capitol demanding increased funding for public schools across North Carolina. While the N.C. Association of Educators and teachers have demanded increases to per pupil spending, funding is only a symptom of a larger problem.Much of the tensions between the state legislature and teachers – arising from a decline in inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending and a 10 percent decline in inflation-adjusted salaries – could have been circumvented with stronger rights for public-sector employees.
State legislators like Rep. Mark Brody – who last week called marching teachers “union thugs” – pit unions (which don’t exist in North Carolina) against quality education. To the contrary, states that allow for collective bargaining are less likely to see teachers’ strikes. This is a result, as Agustina Paglayan writes in the Washington Post, of a collective bargaining system that is responsive to distraught educators’ legitimate concerns. Because teachers in collective bargaining states have a legitimized outlet to voice their concerns, they do not need to strike to be heard. Indeed, collective bargaining agreements oftentimes impose stiff penalties for strikes. In other words, collective bargaining laws provide a relief valve for tensions between the government and public-sector employees.
In North Carolina, however, the NCAE has little power over discontent teachers. They have been careful to call the protest on Wednesday a “day of advocacy,” and were teachers to continue protesting past the day of advocacy, the NCAE would have little control over what follows.
Why is this the case? The National Labor Relations Act of 193 – and subsequent rulings by the National Labor Relations Board – prohibits bans on collective bargaining by private employers. But public employees are not afforded these same privileges, and while many states greatly expanded collective bargaining agreements with public-sector employees in the 1960s and the 1970s, a few states, including North Carolina, make collective bargaining with public employees a misdemeanor.
North Carolina’s law, which was passed in 1959, is one of the most regressive in the country. Even states that disincentive unionization through so-called “right-to-work” laws, which make it so that employees cannot be forced to pay union dues, still do not outright ban collective bargaining.
While the NCAE and marching teachers’ intentions are good and their goals necessary, any gains that we receive this year could just as easily be rolled back in future legislative sessions without formal power for public employees. A collective bargaining lawwould also cover other state and local employees like police officers.
Unfortunately, self-interested legislators are incentivized to raid the public coffers of North Carolina in favor of popular tax breaks when it is politically expedient – as we have seen happen since the 2008 recession. To prevent this from happening again, the power of legislators must be balanced and the ban on collective bargaining must be lifted. If you support your local public schools, withhold your vote this fall from any candidate who does not pledge to lift the ban on collective bargaining.
Matt Tyler is a teacher at Research Triangle High School in Durham, a 2014 James Madison Fellow, and the author of several articles on teachers’ unions in “Political Parties, Interest Groups, and Organizations that Shaped America.”