The subject of unions and teacher organizations in Texas is pretty big. I've been asked to talk about this topic before, but it can't be done in one post. However, you have to start somewhere, so here's the start.
Last week there was a small firestorm in Houston ISD over teacher bonus/incentive/merit pay. The criticism that was flung about over the whole deal at one point resulted in talk of teachers calling a "sick out" in protest of the way the administration handled the bonus money. A sick out is when employees designate a day to all call in sick to work, leaving the "bosses" in a scramble to get work assignments covered and theoretically demonstrating to the employer how valuable they are to the enterprise, therefore encouraging the employer to deal more fairly with the employees on work conditions, pay and benefits.
In Texas, a "sick out" by teachers is prohibited, and teachers who participate in one could potentially lose their job, their teaching certificate, and their TRS pension. Texas Government Code chapter 617 prohibits collective bargaining by teachers, along with strikes and other organized work stoppages, no matter what you call them. If you organize and plan to have a group of people fail to show up to work, it is prohibited. Unions, per se, are not illegal in Texas. But collective bargaining and strikes are.
What is Collective Bargaining? Collective bargaining is the heart of union activity. It is an arrangement whereby a representative of an entire class of employees negotiates with an employer (in this case it would be a school board) to reach an agreement over the pay, hours, and other working conditions of the employees. In other words, instead of each employee negotiating for their terms of work, the union does it for them on behalf of all employees with similar positions. The agreement reached is then put into contract form and can be enforced by a court.
But my union goes to the school board every year to bargain for better pay? A lot of districts get regular input from representatives of many of the teacher organizations in Texas, but what happens is distinctly different from collective bargaining. Input from the organizations is just that - input that the board can use or not as it sees fit. Even when a board implements some or all of the recommendations made by a teacher organization, there is no contract and the Board can change the policy at any time. Also, the teacher organization has no strike power to use as a tool to get the attention of a Board that is not giving reasonable thought to issues that are serious to the teachers. Teachers can always quit at the end of a year if they are unhappy with a district, but many people see that as an unrealistic option, especially in the western and rural areas of Texas.
Some Boards work very well with the teacher organizations. Some Boards don't. In Texas, because of the prohibition on collective bargaining, there is no way to force a district to work with teacher representatives. There is only the possibility of voting the Board members out of office.
The difference between collective bargaining and the input that is allowed in Texas is like the difference between a discussion over a family decision with your spouse versus your kids. Let's say you're deciding whether to take a big vacation or several weekend retreats. When your kids offer to give input, depending on the type of parent you are and the kind of week you are having, you listen and discuss their ideas and place great weight on them, you may listen and file them away, or you may just say this is a decision for the parents and go finish your homework. But when your spouse offers input, you will listen and "bargain" with him or her because they have joint control of the money, of the free time, and of the emotional state of your marriage and family. So you are much more likely to deliberate the issue with your spouse than you are with your kids, no matter how much weight you give the input of your kids.
Texas has a really unique situation with the teacher organizations that exist here, but I'll talk about that, and the organizations specifically, in another post.