On strike for our students.” “Our kids deserve more.” So say the picket-line placards of teachers’ unions. The message is clear: Supporting the unions and their demands also helps students. But how true is this? 

An analysis by economists Michael Lovenheim and Alexander Willén calls into question whether teacher unionization benefits students in the long run. They study the adult outcomes of children exposed to changes in state laws from 1960 to 1990 that encouraged union formation and collective bargaining. With enactment of “duty-to-bargain” statutes, most states began requiring school districts to negotiate with unions over wages, hours, and working conditions. Wisconsin was out the gate first with a duty-to-bargain law in 1960, and Nebraska was last in 1987; seventeen states have not passed such a law.

To undertake the study, Lovenheim and Willén use employment data of thirty-five- to forty-nine-year-olds in the 2005–12 American Community Survey (ACS). They rely on information about adults’ age and state of birth to determine the number of years they would have been exposed to duty-to-bargain laws during their K–12 school years (if at all). To isolate the impact of collective bargaining, researchers compare the differences in the outcomes of students from the same state (before and after duty-to-bargain) to differences in the outcomes of those educated in non-bargaining states over this period. This method helps control for states’ demographic and economic trends, and they also account for a few major policy changes that occurred during this period, such as school finance reforms. They also perform analyses under varying assumptions about interstate mobility during individuals’ school years, and conclude that “any [statistical] bias from post-birth mobility is small.” “Taken together,” the authors claim, “these results provide extensive evidence that supports the causal interpretation of our estimates.”

The results are not pretty, for males specifically. For men exposed to ten years of schooling under duty-to-bargain laws, the study finds significant reductions in adult wages of $2,134 per year. In relation to the average annual salary of men in the ACS data set of $54,296, this represents an earnings loss of 3.9 percent. The wage losses are especially acute for African American and Hispanic males who lose on average $3,246 per annum, equivalent to a 9.4 percent loss relative to the average African American or Hispanic male’s salary. Troubling also are findings that collective bargaining led to fewer work hours per week, which the analysts tie to lower labor market participation rates. Men who were partly exposed to collective bargaining—for instance, their state enacted changes when in fifth grade—also had depressed annual wages, though of smaller size. For example, the wage loss for males exposed to five years of duty-to-bargain laws was $1,729 per year. Thankfully, the analysts found no long-run impacts on females; they also found no clear effects of collective bargaining on high school completion.

Why the negative labor-market outcomes among males? It’s hard to be sure, especially in absence of state exam data during this period. But the research suggests that collective bargaining may have resulted in lower non-cognitive outcomes among male pupils. Based on an analysis of the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which includes data about young people’s sense of self-esteem, locus of control, and more, Lovenheim and Willén conclude, “We see consistent evidence that exposure to a collective bargaining law negatively impacts non-cognitive scores among men.”

This study finds that teacher unionization and collective bargaining dimmed the earnings power of one generation of male students. Perhaps things are different today as states have stronger accountability mechanisms than during the era of this study. But the findings do remind us that we should at least eye the political messages of teachers’ unions with greater skepticism. 

SOURCE: Michael F. Lovenheim and Alexander Willén, “The Long-run Effects of Teacher Collective Bargaining,” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy (forthcoming). An open-access version of the paper is available here, and a summary was also published in Education Next.

Aaron Churchill is the Ohio research director for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where he has worked since 2012. In this role, Aaron oversees a portfolio of research projects aimed at strengthening education policy in Ohio. He also writes regularly on Fordham’s blog, the Ohio Gadfly Daily, and contributes analytic support for…

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