Teachers unions, pro athletes unions, and vaccine mandates

August 16, 2021

This week, millions of children are headed back to school in person, and so are the adults who teach and otherwise care for them. While large majorities of teachers appear to be pro-vaccination and actually getting vaccinated, too, teachers unions have, predictably, received waves of vitriol from the usual suspects for deigning to flex their collective muscle to urge the utmost caution in returning to school. A weird thing about this conflict is that a very similar dynamic plays out in professional sports leagues.

First, I want to make clear that I understand the stakes are far higher for teachers returning to the classroom during a pandemic than for, say, Major League Baseball players negotiating just about anything. Death and illness matter more than different gradations of wealth.

That said, the core argument in returning to in-person schooling is somewhat asymmetrical. Almost all reasonable people agree it’s suboptimal for children to be isolated for long stretches because they need social stimulus that’s impossible to get online or in limited family bubbles, and furthermore, the risk of COVID-19 infection and illness remains particularly low for children, at the moment. However, children can still carry and spread the virus, and as long as there remains a sizeable group of vaccine resistors, new variants can easily pop up with unpredictable effects. This means teachers unions are put in a position of seeming to fight against children’s interests (“Re-open schools!”) when they advocate for their entire school communities’ interests (“Are we sure everyone will be safe?”).

But there’s also another tricky angle similar to one that professional sports unions, specifically, have had to steer around in recent years. For one high-profile example, by 2010, Major League Baseball had already begun a concerted effort to test players for performance-enhancing drugs and publicly floated the idea of testing players’ blood samples in order to detect human growth hormone. While the MLB Players Association also had strong incentives to rid the game of illegal drug use — keeping players healthy, fairer competition for members unwilling to skirt the rules — it had even stronger incentives not to go along with MLB’s blood-testing plans.

Publicly, then-MLBPA Executive Director Michael Wiener expressed concerns about the validity of blood testing while supporting the bargained urine tests. But it’s easy to imagine that was a public relations deflection away from a less sympathetic, but no less important, objection: players don’t want to give in on anything having to do with personal medical information or decisions.

Just a few years later, in the early and mid-2010s, NBA teams started gathering more biometric data from players, with the shift happening so quickly that NBA Players Association representatives appeared to be caught flat-footed. Nonetheless, as that ESPN article quoted Shane Battier explaining, biometrics are incredibly valuable, and players ought to think especially hard about simply handing them over to teams, lest they be used against them come contract renegotiations. For a solid overview of the thorny issues involving players’ biometrics, I suggest Sheryl Ring’s 2018 piece on Fangraphs.

In a similar vein, teachers may have strong incentives to get vaccinated, and they have, at rates far exceeding the general population, but some of their unions are also strong enough to resist a unilateral medical demand — which is what a vaccine mandate is at core — and to demand their employers ensure their safety. Given that teachers don’t want to be seen as putting children at risk, yet also care about their own well-being, it’s not hard to see why the nation’s largest teachers’ associations are struggling with a return to in-person schooling, even if no major news reports on the issue bother to explain that internal conflict.

The unions will likely cave on vaccine mandates because the vast majority of their membership has already been vaccinated and the effort to defend the principle won’t feel worth the immediate downsides. But if I were with union leadership, I’d devote energy toward ensuring this doesn’t establish a precedent. I’m all for vaccines and completely understand how vaccination campaigns rely on community acquiescence, but unions owe it to their members to fight for as many rights and protections as they can, and giving in to a vaccine mandate could come up in the future as an instance when the union agreed to cede control over members’ medical decisions or information.

(Photo: "Mass Vaccination Site" by Maryland GovPics. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)