I Know Nothing! Nothing!

By meekly surrendering paycheck deductions on a monthly basis, teachers are complicit in their unions’ policy making and politicking.

In a great majority of cases across the country, when teachers get work in a public school, they join the teachers union. Or, more accurately, they join three of them. There’s the “local,” whose responsibility is to make sure that teachers have favorable work rules. At the same time, they join a state affiliate. In California, that usually is the California Teachers Association, which essentially runs the state legislature and works to ensure that teachers have job protections unknown to most of humankind. (Not for nothing does the union think of themselves as the fourth branch of government.) Then finally, there’s the national affiliate, which is usually the National Education Association, the biggest and most powerful union – and political entity – in the country. Many teachers don’t even realize that they are in (and paying “unified” dues to) three different unions.

According to a recent post by Mike Antonucci, the National Education Association has discovered it has an apathy problem (especially with younger teachers) and that the union feels it is disconnected from its members.

In the wake of persistent membership losses, the National Education Association began a review of its organizational structure in an effort to improve efficiency and cut costs. Part of the project included a survey of NEA’s board of directors, state affiliate officers, Representative Assembly delegates and rank-and-file members.

The survey response rate itself suggested a problem. Thirty-eight percent of those holding an elected position responded, but only 10 percent of the rank-and-file did so. Since part of the survey sought to gauge member involvement, NEA was not off to a roaring start.

very few members had any contact whatsoever from a union rep above the local level.

…it is difficult to generate outrage on behalf of the rank-and-file, since they seem to be perfectly content – especially the younger members – with their lack of contact with NEA at any level. This is causing much consternation at NEA, but not much among young teachers.

Antonucci then quotes a union leader in California,

Some members do not know what NEA does and some don’t even know that they are NEA members!

Antonucci concludes that,

Both supporters and opponents of the teachers’ unions should learn from this. Ordinary teachers and rank-and-file members should not be criticized for the actions of their union, nor should they be expected to defend those actions. Chances are they haven’t a clue what the union above the local level is up to. At the same time, the unions can’t use ordinary teachers and rank-and-file members as a shield against criticism of the union’s actions. Very little of NEA’s agenda was created by popular demand, or even created with popular knowledge. (Emphasis added.)

Sorry, but teachers shouldn’t be let off the hook for their ignorance and apathy. In California, teachers on average pay over $1,000 per year in dues to their three unions. Of that total, $182 goes to NEA and $647 to CTA, with the remainder staying at the local level. Do they have a clue where all that money goes? Do they not care that their union may be using their dues money to promote political causes they might find abhorrent? Why are they so apathetic about paying the union maybe $30,000 during their careers?

Beyond passivity, teachers, you essentially have three participation options:

1. If you like your unions, get out and support them, vote in their elections and learn where your dues are being spent. If you like their education policies and the direction in which they throw their massive political heft, stand up and get involved to ensure that your “rights” will never be attenuated.  (If you like their education policies but not their far left politicking – think ACORN, Rainbow PUSH, Center for American Progress et al – consider withholding part of your dues and becoming an agency fee payer. To find out just where your union’s political spending goes, check out the latest NEA and AFT Department of Labor financial reports.)

2. If you believe that teachers unions are important to your professional career but think that their policies are misguided, start going to meetings and make your opinions known. If you get a following, good for you! If you are insulted, dismissed or shouted down, you might want to think about why you are paying money to this group in the first place. And importantly, learn where your dues money is going.

3. But if you feel that your rights are being violated by having to pay money to any entity you despise or think is wrong-headed, DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.  Again, learn where your dues money is going. Then think about firing or “decertifying” your union and joining a non-union alternative like the Association of American Educators or Christian Educators Association International. In fact, a “decert” was just carried out in Kansas.

Teachers in a small, southwest Kansas school district have decertified from the state’s main teachers union, the fifth group of teachers to do so in the past year.

Teachers at Spearville Unified School District 381, near Dodge City, voted to leave the Kansas National Education Association on Wednesday, said the Association of American Educators, the KNEA’s non-union rival.

Decertifying means the teachers no longer negotiate their annual contracts through a KNEA local. Instead, they may create a bargaining unit that is unaffiliated with state or national unions, for example.

Then there is a group of fed-up teachers in California who are suing NEA, CTA and various locals. (CA – like 25 other states and D.C. – is a non-right-to work state, which means that, except in very rare circumstances, a teacher must pay dues to a union as a condition of employment. As I wrote last summer about Friedrichs et al v. CTA, NEA et al.,

California law does allow for “mandatory monopoly bargaining,” which means, where public education is concerned, that teachers must pay dues or “fees” to a labor union in order to work at a public school. Teachers may “resign” from the union, which frees them from paying the portion of their dues that would be spent for politics. They’re still required, though, to pay an “agency fee” for other union services, such as collective bargaining—whether they want those services or not….

The rationale for collective-bargaining fees is that even nonmembers benefit from collective bargaining; there should be no “free riders.” But the line between what counts as a “chargeable” fee and what constitutes outright political activity has become blurrier over the years. As the plaintiffs’ lawyers argue, unions use their power “to extract compulsory fees as a convenient method of forcing teachers to pay for activities that have little to do with collective bargaining.”

As examples, the lawyers note that union leaders deemed a recent Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transgender (GLBT) conference and expensive staff junkets to be “predominantly chargeable.”

Thus, the teacher-plaintiffs are asking the court to “declare that California’s practice of forcing non-union members to contribute funds to unions, including dues to support their collective-bargaining activities, violates the First Amendment, and enjoin Defendants [the union] from enforcing this unconstitutional arrangement.” The legal terrain for this argument is more favorable than it has ever been, thanks to recent Supreme Court rulings.

In the 1960s TV sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes,” when the buffoonish German Col. Schultz insisted that he knew nothing, the humor was obvious. Here, not so much. Teachers, by tacitly forking over your dues to a union year after year, you are supporting their educational, political and social agenda. Are you sure that is something you really want to do?

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

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