Teachers and think tanks are joining forces this week to spread the word that many people have the freedom to drop their union. Fifty-five nonpartisan groups in 34 states are holding events to kick off the first National Employee Freedom Week (NEFW), which runs June 23 to 29 this year.
“There are millions of union members around the country who aren’t able to make the decision about union membership that’s best for them, because they don’t know what options they have,” says Colin Sharkey, director of national projects at the non-union Association of American Educators (AAE) and national director for NEFW.
While 24 states have right to work laws that release teachers and other union members from obligatory union membership to get public employment, even in those states many teachers don’t know they have this power, Sharkey said. A 2012 national survey of union households found that one-third would drop union membership if they could.
‘Extremely Limited Access’
“In non-right to work states we have extremely limited access [to teachers] because union rules often make it difficult for teachers to opt out,” he said. An example of this is Nevada, where teachers can only opt out of union membership during two summer weeks, which they must do each year or be automatically re-enrolled.
Teachers seeking to drop union membership often find they must run a similar gauntlet of roadblocks such as narrow opt-out windows and precisely-worded notification letters. AAE advises teachers nationwide on the specific opt-out provisions in their state.
AAE and the Nevada Policy Research Institute created NEFW after a 2012 campaign to educate teachers in the country’s fifth-largest school district about how to leave the Clark County Education Association resulted in a union exodus of 400 teachers. While not a union, AAE provides members union-like benefits such as attorney access, liability insurance, professional development, and national scholarship and grant programs. AAE typically costs less than half of union dues.
Hoops for Teachers
The California Teacher Empowerment Network (CTEN) has been helping teachers “explore these options” for years, said president Larry Sand, a retired California teacher.
The teachers Sand works with tend to be politically independently-minded, and typically want to leave the union because they object to the causes state and national unions support with their dues, Sand said. According to Sand, the California Teachers Association has 300,000 members and reported $211 million in political spending between 2000 and 2009 alone.
California teachers who wish to leave the union must first resign membership, then ask the union for a rebate of the political portion of their dues every year within a specified and frequently narrow window of time. They must continue to pay non-member fees for obligatory union representation. In addition, Sand says, “Teachers find they can be lonely as a union dissident and many teachers like to go along to get along.”
Afraid of Unions
Teachers feel this way outside of California, too.
“Many teachers are afraid of the unions and will cower when confronted with union misinformation or when friends say they won’t talk to them anymore if they switch to [a non-union option,” says Ginger Tinney, executive dirrector of Professional Oklahoma Educators, another nonpartisan, non-union teacher association. Oklahoma is a right-to-work state.
Tinney recounts the story of a teacher who went to see the school counselor after a classroom disruption. The counselor, acting principal for the day and wife of a local union leader, suggested the teacher could be fired and should join the union for lawsuit and job loss protection, while simultaneously handing the teacher the necessary paperwork.
“We have received specific permission to hand out flyers or attend functions and then been told to leave the grounds simply because the union put pressure on the superintendent,” Tinney said, noting that union representatives are allowed to do the same things without restriction.
Even so, Tinney says: “Teachers are starting to find their voice here in Oklahoma but we have to fight for every step of freedom—and we will. We tell our teachers, ‘Look, you can do this. People are here to help you do this. Your freedom is worth it.'”
Image by ANL 艾而歐語.