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Social Psychological Correlates of Membership in Teachers' Organizations

by Mostafa H. Nagi - 1973

Discusses the factors influencing teachers' membership in unions. (Source: ERIC)

Studies in the sociology of occupations reveal that labor organizations tend to move toward professionalism or unionism. In the case of upwardly mobile white collar occupations, organizations increasingly assume the ideological aspects of professionalization, which include: (1) specialized techniques supported by a body of theory; (2) a career supported by an association of colleagues and directed by a code of ethics; and (3) a status supported by community recognition. This trend is reflected to some degree, in the "professionalization of labor."1 But in some of the traditionally established professions, as well as in other, less established segments of white collar workers, organization takes the form of unionism, which includes the characteristics of (1) collective bargaining toward economic gains for their members; (2) affiliation with and support from a national organization of labor such as the AFL/CIO; and (3) advocation of, and support for, the labor organizational model, and ideology. This trend has been extended to the "unionization of the professionals."2

In spite of basic theoretical and functional differences between unions and professional associations, it is somewhat misleading to deal with them in a dichotomous manner. The two do not represent opposite poles since they share over lapping attributes, and since the gradual development of one does not necessarily exclude the other. One may note, for instance, developments of union organization in quasi-professional and technical occupations which are directly concerned with wages and working conditions. In many cases, but especially that of teachers, professional associations continue to coexist with unions.

There has developed an increasing interest in the theoretical analysis of the development and strength of union organizations among certain professions and especially among public school teachers. However, most of the available literature describes the structural conditions under which teachers will support a "union type" movement aimed at changing the organization of their profession.3 The collection of data describing teachers' attitudes and values conducive to their membership in one or the other of their professional organizations is rare. Thus most of the explanations for the subjective state that may significantly influence teachers to unionize remains imputative and speculative in nature.

C. Wright Mills' celebrated analysis of white collar unionism rests on the idea that if the union raises the material level and security of the employees, at the same time it may lower the level and security of their prestige. Central to Mills' analysis is his premise that public school teachers represent the economic proletariat of the professions. Stress is generated by the reality of their economic condition on the one hand and their attitude toward unionization on the other.4 Similarly, Theodore Caplow sees the motives which led to the unionization of fringe professions to be substantial, especially in the case of teachers whose salaries tend to lag constantly behind the cost of living.5 Many writers have articulated explanations of the relatively underdeveloped state of professionalization in the teaching occupations. In 1960 Myron Lieberman felt that because:

. . . teachers' organizations are irrelevant in the national scene, they are weak and teachers are without power, and that power is exercised upon them to weaken and corrupt public education.6

Stephen Cole explains the unionization of teachers as an outcome of their dissatisfaction with salaries and loss of prestige. He sees the conditions of the teaching profession as favorable to channel such dissatisfaction into a union movement. His study of the teacher's union suggests that:

. . . the experience of a sharp decline in prestige provides strong motivation to participate in reform movements. High school teachers may have felt that their prestige was far less than that of doctors and lawyers; but, when they thought that what little prestige they had was slipping away because of the single-salary schedule, their discontent rose sharply. No other professional group suited to unionization appears to have experienced a similar sudden decline in prestige, but it would seem likely that those groups that experience such a decline will be the most likely to turn to a union-type movement.7

Searching for causes of union growth among teachers, both Goslin and Dukes focus on work environment for clues. Goslin stresses the increased bureaucratization of the school system. He has written that:

From the fragmentary evidence available thus far, it would appear that the growth of and development of teachers' unions will coincide with a lessening of teachers' autonomy and an increase in the degree of control exercised by administrators over the teachers' roles. It would seem reasonable to argue that unionization would have the effect of weakening the professional status of teachers.8

Dukes sees union growth among teachers as a result of strong dissatisfaction with their present conditions and a feeling of powerlessness to do anything about it.9 Corwin describes the present and future status of the teaching profession to be:

... a function of a puzzling array of status dimensions, which include the social prestige of teaching, the place of teachers in local communities, their competence and motives, and the occupation's economic status and professional standing.10

From the preceding theoretical explanations I delineated the following hypotheses to be tested:

1. Membership in the National Education Association (NEA) will be associated with emphasis on prestige, less feeling of powerlessness, and a relatively conservative outlook. Membership in the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) will be associated with less emphasis on prestige, greater feeling of powerlessness, and more liberal outlook.

2. Membership in teacher's union (AFT) will be associated with a greater perception of the autocracy of the school administration, and membership in teacher's association (NEA) will be associated with a feeling of autonomy in performing the teacher's role.


The design for testing the hypotheses called for measures of powerlessness, conservatism, and the degree of autocracy of the school system as well as a measurement for emphasis on prestige. The powerlessness scale was designed to elicit the respondent's feeling of control over political and economic events. It consisted of a seven-item scale. Each of these items followed the format of a dichotomous choice between a sense of mastery and a sense of helplessness. The specific content of the items expressed subjectively held probabilities for a low degree of mastery and control over the outcome of personal, national, and international events. Samples of the powerlessness items are:

Persons like myself have little chance of protecting their personal interest when they conflict with those of strong pressure groups.

I feel that we have adequate ways of coping with pressure groups.11

Conservatism was considered to be the ideological justification of established social and political institutions. In this study, Herbert McClosky's measure of political conservatism was used. The scale consisted of nine items. Respondents were asked to agree or disagree with each of the nine items in the scale. An agree response is a conservative response; the total score is the number of items with which the respondent agrees.12 Autocracy of the school administration was operationally defined as the degree of autonomy felt by the school teacher in carrying out work activities. The autocracy scale consisted of nineteen items and combined two of the four leader behavior scales constructed and used by Melvin Seeman in his study "Social Status and Leadership." Seeman's four scales were designed to describe communication, separation, change, and domination of the leader's behavior in the school system. The scales measuring domination and communication were selected to be used as composite measures of the degree of autocracy of the school administration. Their selection was based on the similarity of Seeman's definitions, which guided him in the construction of the scales, and this researcher's definition of the degree of autocracy in the school administration. The format used was of the agree-disagree type. Only four possible responses were indicated. Reverse scoring was used with eleven of the items. The following are sample items:

How much have you learned about your leader's evaluation of your work through casual contacts with him in school or in his office?

A great deal     Fairly much     Some     Not much

During the staff or committee meetings, when differences in viewpoint develop between the leader and other members of the group, do the others tend to give in to his view even though they may not be convinced?

Quite often     Fairly often     Occasionally     Never13

The prestige dimension was designed to differentiate between teachers who tend to emphasize the need to enhance the prestige of the teaching profession more than its economic renumeration. Twelve items consisting of statements about teachers and the job of teaching were constructed. The format used was the agree-disagree type. Only four possible responses were indicated. Reverse scoring was used with six items. Respondents were asked to answer questions such as the following:14

1. Teachers are concerned too much about their salaries.

2. Teachers do not get their fair share of prestige.

3. Teachers should be more concerned today about their social standing than about matters of income.


In the spring of 1966 three hundred questionnaires were sent to high school teachers, members of the NEA and AFT locals in the city of Toledo, Ohio; 150 questionnaires were distributed to members of each organization. The return from the NEA members consisted of ninety questionnaires and the return from AFT members was 136, which brings the final sample to a total of 226 subjects. After reviewing the data, twenty-six incomplete questionnaires and five subjects who held double membership were dropped. Seventy-seven completed questionnaires from the NEA members and 118 questionnaires from the AFT members were tabulated for data analysis.15 First, the mean score and standard deviation for each of the four attitudinal variables were computed separately for the NBA and the AFT. The results are reported in Table 1.


No attempt was made to study the non-respondent group. The fact that the survey was con ducted in the month of June, just a few days before most teachers leave on their summer vacation, necessitated working with the obtained sample.

Teachers who were members of the NEA accorded higher prestige to their jobs than was the case for AFT members; the difference obtained was statistically significant. NEA members were found to be more conservative than AFT members; the difference obtained on conservatism approximated the .05 level of significance. These results were expected. In spite of the fact that the obtained differences between members in the two organizations on their feeling toward the school administration were not statistically significant, they were in the expected direction. AFT members showed greater dissatisfaction with the school administration. On the other hand, NEA members scored higher than AFT members on powerlessness, which was not expected.

Second, the attitudinal variables were considered separately for the two organizations; intercorrelations of these variables are reported in Table 2. Only two of these correlations were statistically significant and were in the positive direction. Among NEA members, dissatisfaction with the autocratic practices in the school system was highly associated with the greater feeling of powerlessness and more concern with the prestige of the teaching profession. For AFT members, none of the correlations obtained reached any significant level.

As a result of the small number of significant correlations obtained, the following can be inferred: (1) these subjective variables are analytically and empirically separate factors; (2) for the most part, the significant associations between autocracy and powerlessness as well as prestige were in the expected direction or explainable by membership in the professional organization (NEA).

Thirdly, eight background variables were tested for their potential influence on organizational membership as well as on the attitudinal variables. Correlations between these eight variables and organizational membership are presented in Table 3.


The comparative data show that AFT members were of a higher age level than the NEA members, although the differences in age were not statistically significant. NEA members tended more than the AFT members to identify themselves with the middle and upper classes. A complex of factors explain why the AFT sample indicated higher income than the NEA. Such factors include differences in degree of education, in years of teaching, and in age.

On all of the occupational variables, the AFT sample scored higher than the NEA. These results may be partly explained by age differences between the NEA and the AFT members of the samples obtained. However, the age variables cannot be the sole factor, since the difference in age between the two groups did not reach any level which is statistically significant. Thus the occupational variables seem to indicate that the AFT members in this sample hold a higher degree of education, teach at a higher grade level, and have spent a longer time in teaching.



The AFT members scored higher on each of the variables, which indicates greater teacher participation as well as longer affiliation with the union organization. Since the AFT members (in this sample) were better educated and teach at higher grade levels, it would seem imperative that these and other background factors should be con trolled if the socio-psychological explanation of membership in teacher organizations is to have any credence. Correlations between the background variables and our measures of dependent variables are presented in Table 4.


For teacher members of NEA there was a strong relationship between grade level of teaching and three of the attitudinal variables. Grade level was found to be negatively correlated with conservatism, autocracy, and emphasis on prestige. Teachers at high grade levels tended to be more liberal, to perceive the school administrators as less autocratic, and to be moderate in estimating the prestige of their work.

For the AFT members, attendance of organizational meetings was accompanied by a greater dissatisfaction with the administration and a greater concern with the prestige of their position. Degree of education was found to be negatively correlated with prestige, a relationship which demonstrates that emphasis on the prestige of position was not a salient characteristic of AFT members. The perception of autocracy was found to have increased with the degree of teachers' education, and, as was previously noted, AFT members were typically found to have a higher degree of education than NEA members. This may explain why they are more inclined toward perceiving school leaders as autocratic administrators.

Of the four measures included in this study, concern with prestige, and conservatism provide the clearest overall support for the hypotheses. For each of these, the overall association with membership in the professional organization (NEA) is statistically significant in the direction hypothesized. For autocracy, the association with membership in teachers associations was not strong; nonetheless, the relationship was in the expected direction. The only expected relationship which was not supported was the one related to powerlessness. Therefore, the initial hypothesis stating that the AFT members would manifest a higher degree of powerlessness was rejected.

The great number of factors which were found to have influenced teachers' membership and participation in work organizations supports the contention that a feeling toward school administration could not be a simple key to understanding the attitude of teachers toward unionism.16 Status psychology of white collar employees is a part of their rejection of unionism.17 Teachers who reject unionization and affiliation with labor seem to do so because of the belief that it would lower their prestige. A higher estimation of social standing, which was found to be a characteristic of NEA, members may be a contributing factor for their relative satisfaction with work conditions.18

AFT members rated school administrators higher on the degree of autocracy than did NEA members. This could possibly be an objective rating on the part of teachers for actual practices carried on by school administrators. It also may be an outcome of generative feelings of dissatisfaction about work conditions, which is intensified by organizational membership.

For teachers, a union seems to serve as an instrument of group security. Membership in the AFT was found to be associated with a strong sense of control over events. The higher feeling of powerlessness which NEA members expressed cannot be explained as a function of their socioeconomic status. A possible interpretation for this contradiction could be found in the nature of the mediating structure which the NEA provides. As an organization that is primarily occupied with professional issues, the NEA seems to place less emphasis on matters related to political or economic concerns. An observation which suggests the differences in the mediating structure of the two organizations may well be in the sphere of the activities carried on by each of them, as well as the degree of collective support each organization provides for individual members.19

Thus it would appear that the logical interpretation of these results starts with the degree of autocracy in the school administration. While the obtained differences were in the expected direction, the differences were of small magnitude. For NEA or AFT members, the obtained scores were skewed in the direction of the perception of high autocracy on the part of school administrators, which indicates a general feeling of dissatisfaction among the teachers with the school administration. Conservatism and a concern with the prestige of teachers are two other variables which seem to be operating along with that general feeling against autocracy in affecting teachers' decisions to join either organization; teachers who display a higher degree of both tend to join the NEA.

The question of how powerlessness is related to the membership in either organization is not clearly answered. It is not clear whether the feeling of alienation is a motivation for teachers' decisions to join either organization, or if it is a product of the mediating structure the two organizations provide.

This paper is essentially a case study.20 The fact that one city (Toledo) is involved provides an opportunity for a broader ranging consideration of the social context than is provided here. The most conservative caucus of the AFT is located in this part of the country, and there are most probably local historical circumstances which have a bearing on the strength of one teachers' organization, vis-a-vis the other in this city. Furthermore, I believe that in those cities where the two groups (NEA and AFT) are contending for sole bargaining power, the consequences can be expected to differ from those in which the union may have a high membership but is not a strong contender for power. Therefore, further cumulative research of this nature can add to our knowledge of the role which such subjective e feelings contribute to the unionization of teachers.

1 Nelson N. Foote, "The Professionalization of Labor in Detroit," American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 58, January 1953, p. 371; Howard N. Vollmer and Donald L. Mills, "Nuclear Technology and the Professionalization of Labor," American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 67, July 1961, p. 690; and also Harold L. Wilensky, "The Professionalization of Everybody," American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 70, September 1964, pp. 137-158. For a comprehensive discussion of professional education, see Howard N. Vollmer and Donald L. Mills, eds. Professionalization. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966.

2 C. W. Mills. White-Collar. London: Oxford University Press, 1956, p. 300; see also Bernard Goldstein, "Unionism Among Salaried Professionals in Industry," American Sociological Re view, Vol. 20, April 1955, pp. 199-206. Among the rapidly growing literature on unioniza tion of the teaching profession, see Michael H. Moskow, "Teachers and Unions." Ph.D. thesis, University of Pennsylvania, 1965; and also Stephen Cole. The Unionization of Teachers. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1969.

3 Bernard Goldstein, "Some Aspects of the Nature of Unionism Among Salaried Professions in Industry," in Walter Galenson and Seymour M. Lipset, eds. Labor and Trade Unionism. New York: John Wiley, 1960, p. 33; see also Ronald G. Corwin, "Militant Professionalism,'5 Sociology of Education, Vol. 38, 1965, p. 310; and Dick Bruner, "Why White-Collar Workers Cannot Be Organized," in Sigmund Nosow and William H. Form, eds. Man, Work, and Society. New York: Basic Books, 1962, pp. 188-196.

4 Mills, op. cit., p. 128.

5 Theodore Caplow. The Sociology of Work. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1954, p. 201.

6 Myron Lieberman. The Future of Public Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960, p. 179.

7 Cole, op. dr., p. 154.

8 David A. Goslin. The School in Contemporary Society. Chicago: Scott, Foresman Company, 1965, p. 135.

9 Archie R. Dukes. School Board and Superintendent. Danville, Ill.: Interstate Printers and Publishing Co., 1965, p. 190.

10 Ronald G. Corwin. A Sociology of Education. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1965, p. 218.

11 These scales were developed and used by Arthur Neal and Melvin Seeman, "Organization and Powerlessness: A Test of Mediation Hypothesis," American Sociological Review, Vol. 29, April 1964, pp. 216-226.

12 The conservatism scale used in this study is a modified version of the one developed and used by McClosky and was found to be highly discriminate between liberals and conservatives. See Herbert McClosky, "Conservatism and Personality," The American Political Science Review, Vol. 52, March 1958, pp. 27-45.

13 Seeman observed that, "For most purposes, the four leader behavior scales seem sufficiently independent to warrant their use as distinct measures. See Melvin Seeman. Social Status and Leadership. Bureau of Education, Research and Services, Ohio State University, 1960, pp. 114-119.

14 Mean scores and standard deviations were computed separately for the NEA and the AFT for each of the twelve items. The test was used to obtain the significance of differences between the two subsamples (NEA and AFT members). The second step was to obtain the intercorrelation between each item and the total score. Using the split half method, the correlation obtained warranted the use of these items and the total scores as a rough index of prestige position.

15 The relatively low rate of return for the NEA needs to be recognized. In contrast to the AFT rate of return, which was exceptionally high (90 percent), that of the NEA was only 60 percent.

16 Mills, op. cit., p. 305.

17 Ibid., p. 312.

18 Solemon Rettig, Frank Jacobson, and Benjamin Pasamanick, "Status Overestimation, Objective Status, and Job Satisfaction Among Professions," American Sociological Review, Vol. 23, February 1958, p. 75.

19 In contrast to Corwin's study of militant professionalism, which is more social structural, this one emphasizes social-psychological variables. Both approaches, of course, complement each other and supply knowledge about these two levels of social reality. See Ronald G. Corwin. Militant Professionalism: A Study of Organizational Conflict in High Schools. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1970.

20 Earlier studies lend support to some of the conclusions of this report. See Cole, op. cit., pp. 99-101. See also Alan Rosenthal, "The Strength of Teacher Organizations: Factors Influencing Membership in Two Large Cities," Sociology of Education, Vol. 39, Fall 1966.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 74 Number 3, 1973, p. 369-378
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1533, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 7:52:17 AM

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