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When I first conceived of the paper, it was as a means to learn how teachers’ unions function. A preliminary
survey of literature revealed that besides being a fairly understudied area, there are few researchers who do
not take a critical view of the unions’ operations, though on the basis of their values (ideals/ history) and on
the basis of their principles (ideology/ philosophy)1, teachers’ unions simply appear to be reproducing the
identities they were meant to recreate: Most teachers’ unions had their origin in a collectively and deeply felt
sense of injustice or inadequacy, and they were modelled after trade unions, whose members considered it
their right to protest against wages and working conditions that were found wanting.
My attempt in this paper would be to try to understand how teachers’ unions have been seen to
function, and also to see their functioning from within the framework they have chosen; but while arguing for
judging them with greater sensitivity to their historical and philosophical bases, I would also like to examine if
there are ways in which teachers’ unions can expand their identities, reflexively re-working their agendas and
divesting themselves of certain ‘acquired’ attributes so as to impact educational development in a manner that
is appreciable.


There are more than 300 teachers’ unions across the world2, many of which are umbrella organizations for
smaller teacher federations/ associations. Very often, the unions began as associations of teachers who came
together to address certain common social, economic and professional needs. Most of them now are
unapologetically activist, collectively bargaining or militantly mobilising on matters that affect their
compensation, employment security, and workplace governance.

Across the world, wages and working conditions have been the major reasons for teacher agitations
at all levels, and in democracies, where every vote counts, few political parties have been able to take on the
unions. In the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, for instance, school teachers are a powerful voting bloc that
politicians can ignore at their peril. Ninety per cent of the secondary school teachers of Uttar Pradesh are
members of the Madhyamik Shikshak Sangh (MSS) (Kingdon & Muzammil, 2001), which was the first
teachers’ association to be formed in Uttar Pradesh 3. If the MSS gets its strength from the fact that it is a

I am here equating values/ ideals with goals and principles/ ideology with beliefs.
Established in 1921, as the U.P Secondary Teachers Association.
representative body of almost the entire section of the teaching community that it has identified itself with, the
union of primary teachers, the Prathmik Shikshak Sangh, gets its power from the sheer numbers that it
represents, for there are almost one lakh primary schools in Uttar Pradesh as against ~7000 secondary schools.
Besides, teachers are very influential at the local level. As they are among the few educated persons in a
village, their voice carries a lot of weight. Naturally, many political parties opt to choose teachers to be their
district-in-charge. In fact, Kingdon and Muzammil go so far as to assert, “Teachers in school (as opposed to
higher) education have been instrumental in determining the local base of political parties in the state.”
There is, of course, a quid pro quo. Legislators of the state assembly never hesitate to use their clout
to get the administration to meet the teachers’ demands. Biennial strikes by teachers have been a part of the
educational culture of Uttar Pradesh for nearly half a century, with the protests often lasting a month or more.
Between 1956 and 1994 there were at least 27 agitations, resulting in some significant laws being passed for
the benefit of teachers (Kingdon & Muzammil, 2001). Interestingly, in Uttar Pradesh, a good number of
legislators are also teachers, and hence, do not stop with extending their moral support; they physically
participate in the agitations as well4.
Among the laws the teachers have managed to get passed over the years are the Salary Distribution
Act of 1971, the U.P. Basic Education Act of 1972 and U.P. Secondary Education (Service Commission) Act
of 1982. These Acts had a fundamental and enduring impact on the salaries, appointments and service
conditions of the teachers, making them more secure financially and tenure-wise, but at the same time holding
them less accountable for their work as the centralization of the management freed them from local pressures
to perform. The result, according to Kingdon and Muzammil, has been promotion of the teachers’ self-
interests at great cost to the students: The union-related activities eat into the teaching time, disrupting classes;
the election of teachers to the legislature leaves a vacuum in the school, which, however, is not filled as the
teacher-legislators are not legally bound to resign and, hence, continue to draw their salaries as employees of
the school; financial betterment of teachers has been privileged over improvement of school infrastructure and
facilities resulting in diversion of scarce funds to meet teachers demands rather than school achievement
That the findings of Kingdon and Muzammil, which are based on union activities in one particular
Indian state, are generalisable and universal is evident from the fact that they find an echo in studies of
teachers’ unions from across the world. Raise salaries, reduce class sizes, block reforms, protect teachers
from dismissal, irrespective of their lack of effectiveness/ competence – these are the teacher union demands
U.P. has a bicameral legislature. There have been ~15 teacher representatives in every
Legislative Council of ~108 members and ~19 elected teachers in every Legislative Assembly of
~430 members, i.e. about 14% and 4.5% of the strength of the respective houses (prior to the
bifurcation of the state in 2000).
Between 1960 and 1981, at all levels, there was a steep drop in the amount spent on non-
salary expenditure in total educational expenditure: from 12% to 3% in primary education; from
15% to 6% in junior education; and from 28% to 10% in secondary education (Kingdon &
Muzammil, 2001, p. 3184). In 1990-91, to meet the demands of the teachers, the budgetary
estimates for education were revised upwards by about 30%; at the same time, the non-
education expenditure declined by 8% as the government was under severe financial constraint
and was forced to reduce overall expenditure (ibid, p. 3057).
that have come in for maximum censure. Some recent studies in the United States and recent debates in the
U.S. media over the role of teachers’ unions in holding teachers in state-run schools accountable for their
professional behaviour and proficiency, provide a comparative perspective.

Teachers’ Unions and Student Performance: Help or Hindrance?

On the basis of empirical research, Dr. Randall Eberts, President of the W.E. Upjohn Institute for
Employment Research, concludes that public spending on education in the U.S. goes up by more than 15%
because of the collective bargaining by teachers unions (Eberts, 2007). However, the higher operating cost is
not commensurate with the returns to education in terms of student achievement or school performance, he
says, though he concedes that there is not enough research directly linking unionization with student
achievement. According to Eberts’ study, a major area of intervention by the union, which has had a direct,
negative impact on education, is the unions’ ability to shield its members from accountability for their
performance. This factor has also come in for much public criticism in recent months, especially in New
York, where the administration is bent on bringing in radical changes in its contract6 with the unions once it
comes up for renewal.
One of the major reasons for the New York administration’s doggedness in this regard is that it spent
about $ 30 million in 2008-09 to pay the salaries of about 600 teachers who had not been attending school for
an average of three years (Phillips, 2010). These teachers, all accused of various misdemeanours – from
coming drunk or drugged to class, to hitting or molesting a student, to incompetency – have been lodged in
temporary reassignment centres, called ‘rubber rooms,’ waiting to have their cases heard. As per the
contractual norms of the union with the New York administration, no teacher can be dismissed without a
hearing by a state-appointed, union-approved, arbitrator, and till such a hearing comes to pass, the teacher is
to spend the school hours (normally 8.30 a.m. to 3.30 p.m.) in a rubber room instead of in the class room. It
takes two to five years for a case to be heard out and until the charges are resolved, the teachers will continue
to draw their normal salaries, though instead of their normal teaching duties, they will be playing board games
and card games and reading newspapers in the rubber rooms. Arbitrators rarely recommend dismissal – there
have been only eight dismissals in two years, and the other teachers simply get back to school – as their
appointments have to be approved by the unions every year and the unions are said to keep a ‘score card’
(Klein, 2010).
Teachers’ unions have also come in for a lot of flak for opposing performance-based salary
increments and promotions (Lavy, 2007), for being concerned about their narrow self-interests, to the
exclusion of substantive issues impacting education such as professional training for self-improvement and
funds for school libraries (Rudra, 1987), and, in democracies, for using their vote as a weapon to push through
policies that they favour and block those that they perceive as coercive (Eberts, 2007). However, while these
All states in the USA have teachers’ unions (which represent 67% of the country’s 3 million
active public elementary and secondary school teachers) and collective bargaining is
permissible in thirty five states. In all these states, the unions enter into contracts with the
administration every two or three years.
objective assessments of teachers unions are important, it is also necessary to see the union activities from the
perspective of the unions’ distinct identity. Teachers’ unions are, after all, modelled on trade unions. Their
premise, therefore, is that labour and capital have conflicting interests, and they see their primary role as
protecting their members from the unrealistic demands of the employers. The right to strike is their strength.
The frequency and duration of the strike is not their concern; getting the employer to accede to their demands
Another common criticism levelled against teachers’ unions is that unionization leads to increase in
inputs (teacher salaries and benefits) without commensurate returns in productivity (school performance in
terms of working days and student performance), which remains static or even declines. However, this needs
to be weighed against the plight of non-unionised teachers, especially from private, recognised schools, who,
according to Kingdon herself, are paid less than what is due to them by law (Kingdon & Teal, 2008). It is also
not unusual to find classrooms filled to more than capacity, as norms are thrown to the winds and as many as
20% more than the mandated number of students are accommodated, often in multi-grade classes. Studies in
the US have found that student-teacher ratios are 7% to 12% lower for unionized teachers than for those who
do not belong to any union (Eberts, 2007). Besides, most teachers unions had their origins in the efforts of
teachers to group together, to mobilise, to protest unfair practices of the management, poor working
conditions, low wages and failure of the school managements to accord dignity to teachers7.
However, now that teachers’ unions are no longer a nascent force, but powerful enough to decide the
contours of public education, I would like to conclude by arguing that it is time they stepped out of the
shadow of their political beginnings and forged links with other civil society organizations to realise socially
significant objectives rather than personal political objectives. The social legitimacy they are likely to gain
from this makeover in their priorities may, ultimately, provide them with political legitimacy in their own
right, should they desire it.


There have been many examples, the world over, of teachers’ unions’ tryst with public causes.
In Korea, in the first half of the 20th century, when Japanese colonised the country and tried to destroy the
Korean language and culture by taking over school education, the members of the Korean Teachers’ Union
thwarted the Japanese hegemonic intentions by voluntarily opening evening schools to teach Korea’s children
their language and culture. More recently, concerned over the parents’ obsession with entrance exams and the
pressure they put on their wards to succeed in these exams, the Korean Federation of Education Associations
(KFEA) and Chon’kyojo, a banned teachers union, called for an end to exam-driven education.
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) was among the first organizations to extend full membership
to minorities and call for equal pay to African-American teachers. They also demanded that black children be
given equal educational opportunities and that schools include lessons on African-American contributions to
K L Shrimali cited in KIngdon and Muzammil, 2001, p. 3059.
the culture and economy of America. The National Education Association (NEA) of the U.S.A. also fought
racism, refusing to hold its assemblies in cities that discriminated against delegates, based on race.
In Britain, the officers of the National Union of Teachers of the United Kingdom are regarded so erudite
that ministries send their draft policies pertaining to education to the union, encouraging them to comment
freely on the proposals, and thus participate actively in policy-making, though there is no legal requirement to
consult the unions. And, during the summit of the G20 to deliberate on the global financial meltdown in
March 2009, 35,0000 members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, UK, marched through London
to ‘tell’ the G20 nations to ‘put the people first,’ to think of ‘justice, jobs and a low carbon future.’

These random examples of atypical union activities affirm that “Unions are unique civic associations that
[could] play a decisive role in balancing and configuring the relationships between the state, the economy, and
civil society (Lee, 2007).” This is an identity that teachers unions would do well to reclaim for themselves.
One way of doing this could be to strengthen inter-organizational linkages and linkages with society using the
very tools of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) that they have been employing, savvily, to
network and campaign for bread-and-butter issues. Teachers’ unions can, and, perhaps, should, make a lasting
impact on the way education is done by creating public awareness and bringing to bear public pressure on the
administration to make educational policies that are in the long-term interests of the students and the people at


Eberts, Randall W, ‘Teachers Unions and Student Performance: Help or Hindrance?’ The Future of Children,
Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring 2007, Princeton-Brookings.

Kingdon, Geeta Gandhi & Muzammil, Mohammed, ‘A Political Economy of Education in India: The Case of
Uttar Pradesh – I & II,’ Economic and Political Weekly, August 11 and 18, 2001.

Kingdon, G.G., Teal, Francis, ‘Teacher Unions, Teacher Pay and Student Performance in India: A Pupil Fixed
Effects Approach,’ CESIFO working paper 2428, Category 4: Labour Markets, October 2008.

Klein, Joe, ‘Why We’re Failing Our Schools,’ Time, January 28, 2010.,8599,1957277,00.html (Accessed on April 5, 2010).

Lavy, Victor, ‘Using Performance-based Pay to Improve the Quality of Teachers,’ The Future of Children, Vol. 17, No.
1, Spring 2007, Princeton-Brookings.

Lee, Cheol-Sung, ‘Labor Unions and Good Governance: A Cross-National, Comparative Analysis,’ American
Sociological Review, Vol. 72, No. 4, Aug., 2007.

Phillips, Anna, ‘Teachers Unions and City in Talks to Shrink Rubber Rooms,’ March 15, 2010. (Accessed on April 5, 2010)

Rudra, Ashok, ‘Teachers Strike: A Dissenting View,’ Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 22, No. 49, December 5,