Megan McArdle quotes E. D. Kain arguing for teachers’ unions by saying:
Teachers need protection from over-zealous bosses and ideological politicians. This is the same thinking behind seniority rules, which protect more expensive teachers (i.e. veterans) from being laid off due to budget cuts. Teaching is not a high-paying job compared to jobs in the private sector, and one of the benefits is some job security. Occasionally this means bad teachers take longer to fire.
Because of and not in spite of my free-market beliefs, I think Kain makes a valid point. Public-sector employees are not protected from arbitrary firings to the same degree that private-sector workers are and that does create a somewhat compelling argument for public-sector unions.
The free market actually protects workers from being fired for reasons unconnected to their job performance. This is not to say that such firings never occur but rather that the free market provides a built-in mechanism for punishing managers who don’t make personnel decisions based solely on merit. This immediate and powerful feedback means that private-sector worker have more built-in and systematic protection against managerial bias, incompetence and malice than do public-sector workers.
The best way to protect teachers and other public sector workers is to increase the exposure of their managers to market forces.
Many opponents to the free market oppose it because they see it as impersonal and heartless. It rewards people based solely on their ability to produce goods and services that others will purchase voluntarily. The free market ignores any other criteria, e.g., whether an individual comes from a historically oppressed group. Free-market opponents see this as a fatal flaw.
Free-market opponents miss that the impersonal, merit driven nature of the free market also protects individuals from the caprice and malice of others. Since the free market rewards productive merit, it economically punishes those managers who make decisions about hiring and firing based on any factor other than job performance. A manager who refuses to hire good workers because of some prejudices restricts his candidate pool and raises his employment cost, which the market translates into higher prices for the manager’s customers. A manager who fires good employees likewise raises the cost of his goods. In both cases, the quality of work per dollar spent declines. This places the business at a disadvantage relative to its competitors who hire and fire purely on merit.
Public-sector managers, however, work within a violence-enforced monopoly and have only very weak and very long-term market forces acting upon them. Voting provides only very weak pseudo-market feedback because voters must average out and amalgamate all their opinions about all government services into one right or left decision. A citizen’s only option otherwise is to vote with his feet and leave a government jurisdiction whose quality of services he dislikes. That can prove so expensive for the citizen that he will tolerate inferior services from government that he would not tolerate from a private provider.
Certainly a school district that fires good teachers or refuses to hire them will suffer in the long run but the length of that long run is measured in decades. Bad management decisions can survive for many, many times longer in public-sector monopolies than they can in the private sector. Even inside big companies that stay in business for decades, managers in individual departments or units face immediate feedback if they make poor personnel decisions. The rest of the company will not tolerate a unit that loses money by refusing to hire and fire on merit.
However, even given this reality, the long-term solution isn’t to have public sector unions. The long-term solution is to privatize the decision-making in more public services, thus granting workers who provide public goods the protection of the free market.
School choice, where the government provides vouchers to parents but parents decide where to spend those vouchers, is the best way to protect good teachers from the caprice and malice of political managers. A voucher-supported school will experience immediate negative feedback if the management does not make hiring and firing decisions based on merit. That feedback will take the form of parents withdrawing their children from the school and putting them in the school across the street. Teachers will then have both job protection and the opportunity to individually excel that the current politically-managed school system denies them.
In short, the only reason that teachers need unions to protect them is that they work for the government and not for the parents of their students. Letting teachers work for the parents directly, protects the teachers and obviates the need for unions.