Merit pay the LeBron way

The tantrum Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert has thrown over the departure of NBA league MVP LeBron James was part of the subplot Thursday night as 7-million viewers watched James return to Cleveland in a Miami Heat uniform. But it is also a reminder that not all unions exist merely to protect an employee’s tenure.

In professional sports unions, free agency is the Holy Grail. Through free agency, individuals can sell their services to the highest bidder. All the sports unions have fought — and continue to fight – bitter battles with team owners for the right to free agency. Teacher unions, on the other hand, have historically fought against free agency. They oppose teachers having the ability to sell their services to the highest bidder, but this opposition is illogical in this emerging new public education system.

Customization may someday force teachers to adopt a new unionism that includes some form of free agency. As public education moves away from the one-size-fits-all assembly line and towards customization, teacher unions will lose market share to schools that aren’t easily covered by a master collective bargaining agreement. So they might be forced to consider other models, and pro sports unions are one. Whereas teacher unions use their collective power to disempower individuals, pro sports unions use their collective power to empower individuals.   

The 1930s model of industrial unionism teachers embraced in the 1960s and 70s is obsolete and no longer serves teachers well. A new teacher unionism is inevitable – a topic I’ll write more about in future posts.

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BY Doug Tuthill

A lifelong educator and former teacher union president, Tuthill has been president of Step Up For Students since August 2008.