When someone mentions teacher unions, the example that pops into my mind is the "war" waged by former Washington D.C. schools superintendent Michelle Rhee against her union counterparts. A little background: D.C. public schools have been notorious for many years about its perverse cost-per-student to student performance ratio. Each year, the school systems spends around the same amount of money per student as in New York City but its students perform much poorer than their Big Apple counterparts. In an effort to ameliorate this problem, the former Washington D.C. mayor appointed Michelle Rhee, someone with minimal educational experience aside from a stint with Teach for America, to head reforming the district's education system.
Although she had her own flaws (e.g. overbearing personality and very confrontational with anyone), Michelle Rhee began closing under-performing schools and laying off teachers considered inept. Her ultimate goal was to greatly reduce, if not eventually eliminate teacher unions, and put all teachers on a merit-pay system rather than the common seniority system. And boy did she run into opposition. Teacher unions obviously opposed her actions with ferocity and attempted to stifle Rhee's efforts on every side: politically, financially, etc. Teacher unions also mobilized PSA (Parent Student Associations) to side with them on the matter. Rhee's slugged through the difficulties --largely resulting from her explicit backing of the former governor.
Yet in the end, her effort largely failed and both she and the governor left their positions. (She actually resigned because the governor had lost the reelection to someone else). There were marked improvements in standardized test scores and greater efficiency, but the movement fizzled out with her out of power. I saw on the news last week that the teacher union is pushing the current Washington D.C. mayor to reinstate teachers fired under Rhee, with back-pay for any time lost since their firing. That is absolutely absurd. Rhee's personal flaws aside, she must have had valid reasons to fire the teachers that she did.
I think the problem of modern day education is quality of educators rather than their quantity. I recall during high school (I attended a public high school) that there were many amazing instructors. My biology teacher actually fostered a passion of biology in me and I learned many many things from a number of others. My French teacher, who left before my senior year, actually cried when she admitted ot the class that she had been offered a better position at a nearby university. But for every great teacher, there are probably two average and two poor teachers. I recall that there were some teacher who did not care much for its students -- instead bent on teaching things they considered appropriate, or the minimum possible.
As a student for many years (even now, in graduate school), the teacher plays a pivotal role in the development of not only knowledge but also passion for knowledge. The latter is arguably more important because, only with passion will one have the curiosity to look beyond the obvious and/or beyond the bare minimum. It is the nectar what cultivates future innovation and future leaders.
In the current economic environment, with states facing record budget deficits, government spending must be cut in certain areas. Everyone has to share the financial burden if they want to see the survivability of their jobs. Unfortunately, people tend to be myopic and thus fail to see that having their way now means a bleaker future for themselves and, perhaps more importantly, their children.
Although I agree that teachers today are mostly under-compensated, I think the problem lies in the incentives system currently in place rather than public governance. The merit-pay system seems to be an extremely fair compensation scheme: compensate teachers for how their students perform first and foremost. Although the measure of student performance (e.g. standardized tests) are not the best and can definitely be improved upon, it is much better than the current system of rewarding teachers based on their years of service. This is because years of service is a wholly independent criteria (read: irrelevant) to educational standards. How are the number of years of service indicative of how well you teach? I can see a counterargument of "years of service equals experience" but I would re-counter this with the fact that experience is the antithesis of adjustments needed. Teachers who have tenure have no incentive to change their methods, even if their students are failing left and right. Change is necessary as a precursor to better introduce new and better methods of reaching out to students.
In the end, I argue that labor unions such as teacher unions are antiquated organizations. They are vestiges of a past where companies abused their workers (e.g. 19th century steel manufacturing) and the government did little to help the average Joe. But nowadays, there is a dizzying array of instruments through which anyone aggrieved can seek to address others' wrongdoing. For example, companies know better nowadays than to permit workplace harassment or employment discrimination -- because the government will punish them accordingly. Unions of today have little function than as a collective platform to push for ever-increasing wages and benefits, as well as to limit entry into their areas of profession. They function as artificial barriers of free enterprise and thus very much inefficient/wasteful. With minimal training, I think most of the currently unemployed can work the assembly line or teach in the classroom. There are a great number of intelligent, well-educated individuals eager for jobs like the ones held on union members. Why can't companies just boot out all their union members and hire new non-members instead?
As another example, unions always put their members first and will often force companies to transfer employees than to fire them. Teacher unions are notorious for moving teachers between school districts instead of allowing these teachers to be fired -- about violations of conduct. Albeit with much controversy, I will make the analogy that teacher unions are like the Catholic Church: transfer pedophile priests between churches rather than expelling them outright. The transfer only provides fresh ground for abuses...