Illinois Teachers Seek Independence from State Union, Meet Resistance

Published March 1, 2007

A decision by some Illinois teachers to seek independence for their local union has succeeded despite resistance from the state teachers union.

On February 1, the Century Education Association in rural Ullin became the state’s first local teachers union to formally sever affiliation with the Illinois Education Association (IEA). Century now will bargain for its own members, who no longer owe dues to IEA or the National Education Association (NEA).

In November 2006 the Century notified the Illinois Labor Relations Board of its intention to act as teachers’ sole bargaining agent with the school district. Of 40 teachers, 38 signed the petition.

Also in November, Century Education Association teachers voted 24 to 4 to remove a stipulation from the association’s bylaws requiring membership in the Illinois Education Association (IEA) and National Education Association (NEA).

An IEA official said the union is disappointed but no longer interested in challenging Century’s right of action.

“It certainly is up to them, but we believe that the benefits of being an IEA/NEA member are substantial,” IEA spokesman Charlie McBarron said. “Clearly there is no comparison in terms of membership, benefits, insurance, and field support. No other organization is offering members a program like that.”

Paying for Almost Nothing

Public educators in Ullin don’t see it that way.

“The biggest problem, most teachers say, is that they just don’t want to pay so much and not get much in return,” said Debra Goins, president of the Century Education Association.

Century union members are paying $542 in combined dues for 2006-07, only $30 of which goes to the local association. Members who opt to join the non-union Association of American Educators (AAE) instead will pay $130 a year. AAE offers liability insurance and free or low-cost professional development workshops, but does not bargain with school districts.

Goins said the savings will help teachers in the high-poverty region of southern Illinois cover rising health insurance premiums. She said some members are also concerned about how IEA and NEA use some of their dollars.

“They don’t do anything on the state level but get involved in issues that don’t seem to affect us directly, social issues that we might or might not agree with,” Goins said.

Denying Political Involvement

McBarron dismissed that concern.

“The IEA is a mainstream organization that has more than 125,000 members,” McBarron said. “We reflect diversity but also mainstream values. We always have. We don’t take positions on issues outside of education.”

The National Education Association has been widely criticized by members and outside groups for its controversial stances on issues ranging from abortion to gun control.

Discovering Alternatives

Though they’ve expressed their dissatisfaction with the NEA to each other for years, Goins said she and her fellow teachers did not seriously consider breaking away until she learned about AAE. Members of Century Education Association authorized her to contact AAE on their behalf.

The experience was enlightening, Goins said.

“I saw that there were other options,” Goins said. “We’ve always been led to believe that without IEA you can’t bargain with the school district, and they’re still telling us that.”

LaRae Munk, AAE’s director of legal services, gave the local union president a different understanding. She explained that Illinois labor law prevents teachers from disaffiliating with their bargaining representative for the first three years after a negotiated contract takes effect.

The prohibition is called a “contract bar.” Century’s contract bar expired in June 2006, Munk said, even though the agreement remains in effect into 2009.

Goins said Munk has been an invaluable legal resource. The local union president’s previous inquiries for legal assistance from IEA were filtered through the regional Uniserv director. Uniserv is a national advocacy group for which the NEA pays approximately $50 million annually.

“They call the attorney for you,” Goins said. “It’s kind of a gatekeeper.”

Munk said AAE has worked with 15 or 20 local teacher associations nationwide–including groups in California, Michigan, Ohio, and Washington–on cases involving disaffiliating from the NEA.

Resisting Threats

But Century’s situation stands out.

“It’s the arrogance of IEA representatives to refuse to accept the will of their own members to disaffiliate,” Munk said. “You’d think an organization representing professionals would show professionalism, but it hasn’t been the case.”

A December 7 letter from the regional IEA Uniserv office told Century union members that the terms of their membership allowed them to opt out of IEA and NEA dues only during a two-month window between July 15 and September 15. Goins said she and other members were told they could not terminate the affiliation, and IEA would sue if they tried.

At press time, IEA had made no attempt to force payment or take other formal legal action against the Ullin teachers.

The IEA Uniserv letter also said IEA would not cover the costs of a local member’s arbitrated grievance case if Century ceased to be “a dues-paying affiliate,” regardless of the teacher’s individual membership. Munk offered to step in if the union wouldn’t represent a local member.

Some Century teachers received phone calls at home, which Munk described as harassment and intimidation.

‘Punishing Us’

McBarron disagreed with that assessment.

“I think we wanted to make sure,” McBarron said of the phone calls and letters. “We have an obligation to make sure they understand the value of their membership.”

Goins was surprised by the treatment she and her fellow teachers received from IEA.

“I feel like they haven’t been helping us, that they’ve been punishing us for trying to get out of the association,” Goins said.

“If teachers vote and that’s what they want to do, I’d think the teachers union would be there to support them,” Goins continued. “I’m just appalled at the fact that they don’t seem helpful at all, unless it’s to their benefit.”

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.

For more information …

“Teacher Unions Promote a Political Agenda,” by Robert Holland, School Reform News, July 1, 2003,