In the 35 years since Wisconsin became the first state to adopt public-sector bargaining, public employee union membership has increased dramatically. So strong is the trend, in fact, that it’s only a matter of time before public employee unions come to dominate organized labor’s voice.
An AFL-CIO dominated by public employee groups raises legitimate concerns. Government often has a monopoly over the delivery of vital public services; public-sector strikes, consequently, can have devastating effects on public health and safety. And because citizens pay for higher public-sector wages through higher taxes, public-sector bargaining is really a political process, not an economic one.
Fortunately, public-sector unions have begun to meet determined resistance–not only in the conservative South, but increasingly in the industrial Midwest, where collective bargaining in government has been the rule for many years. The first rollback of the unions’ legal privileges came last year in Michigan. And this year, legislators in Indiana voted to phase out a system of compulsory unionism affecting a majority of the state’s K-12 public teachers. In the future, no nonunion or minority union teacher will be forced to pay the rough equivalent of union dues.
The Indiana State Teacher’s Association (ISTA) was the chief instigator of compulsory unionism when the Hoosier State, in 1973, first enacted teacher bargaining. Indiana’s law did not address the issue of nonmember “service fees.” Nevertheless, teacher union locals–spurred on by ISTA organizers–began negotiating such agreements with inexperienced or compliant school boards.
Ultimately, the courts held that while nonmembers could not be fired for non-payment or forced to fork over purely political assessments, they could be sued and made to pay an amount approximating union dues. By 1994, some 55 percent of Indiana’s public teachers were routinely required either to establish union affiliation or to pay almost as dearly for unwanted representation without receiving liability insurance or the right to vote on contracts and in union elections.
Despite the meager apparent advantages of doing so, thousands of Indiana educators either refused to join the ISTA or deliberately resigned from that organization. Many banded together to actively oppose the ISTA in its professed goal of establishing complete control over the education process. A new group — Indiana Professional Educators (IPE), led by Jane Ping in Indianapolis — began a long, at first lonely effort to stop the collection of nonmember teacher service fees in Indiana.
For nearly two decades, the IPE’s volunteer lobbyists told anyone who would listen — legislator and non-legislator alike — that the special interest of the ISTA/NEA was contrary to the cause of quality education and the interests of individual teachers. In the IPE’s view, a nonmember teacher was not a “free rider,” as the ISTA insisted, but a victim of “legal kidnapping” due to legislative inaction.
Slowly, the IPE’s message penetrated the political process. When Democratic officials refused to take action against union excesses, Ping and the IPE began to find and embolden key legislative allies within the GOP. The IPE also picked up important non-legislative allies, including the Indiana State Chamber of Commerce.
When the 1994 elections installed strong Republican majorities in both houses, Ping and her allies seized the opportunity. Proposals for service fee bans were deposited in House and Senate bill hoppers on the first day of the legislative session. While the House version of the service fee ban remained in committee, the Senate bill cleared the Labor Committee on February 6 and was approved, 26 to 24, by the full Senate eight days later. House approval, by a single-vote majority, came two months later.
Frantic, ISTA officials prevailed upon Governor Evan Bayh (D) to veto the bill. But the Senate overturned the Governor’s veto on April 25, and the House followed suit the following day. Over twenty years of unbridled teacher union power was brought to an end.
By overcoming Indiana’s powerful public-sector unions, Jane Ping scored an important victory for taxpayers around the country. At stake are billions of dollars of public funds each year, as well as the dignity and professionalism of all public school teachers. Let’s hope reformers like Ping can be found to lead the fight in other states where public-sector union power continues to grow, unchecked and unchallenged.
Written for The Heartland Institute by Roman K. Rice, who has served as legislative affairs director for the Public Service Research Council since 1975. Contact PSRC at 527 Maple Avenue East, 3rd Floor, Vienna, VA 22180, phone 703/242-3575, and request a complimentary copy of “Beyond Public Sector Unionism” by David Y. Denholm.