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How to Opt Out of Public Sector Unions

This week is National Employee Freedom Week, a nationwide effort of 81 groups in 45 states to raise awareness among public union employees that they can opt out of membership in their unions. Groups also provide members with the necessary help and resources to do so.

Victor Joecks, executive vice president at the Nevada Policy Research Institute and an organizer of NEFW, told me why this week should be celebrated:

In almost every area of life, Americans understand that they have the right to join and leave associations. Every day some Americans go to a new church, switch political parties, or cancel magazine subscriptions without even considering the possibility that they wouldn’t be able to leave an organization they were unhappy with. We understand these rights in almost every area of life except for one—union membership.

The issue at stake is not that employees cannot leave a public sector union—it is that they cannot choose to stop funding the union. In forced unionization states, employees have the option to become agency fee payers, exempting them from paying for union activities that are directly political. By doing so, they lose many benefits of union representation, such as liability insurance. However, they are still forced to pay most of the dues.

Many people who support forced-unionization bring up the “free rider” problem. They say that people who leave the union will still receive benefits, such as bargaining for increased pay, fewer hours worked, and more generous retirement benefits, that they do not pay for. While this is a valid concern, the desire to opt out of public sector unions is not a case of a free rider problem. No sane person would force someone to get on a bus, then complain that they are “gaming the system” by resisting paying the fare. If union membership were voluntary the free rider problem may apply, but it is not.

Many union members see how collective bargaining is bankrupting state and local governments and harming educational achievement. They understand that by burdening their neighbors, children, and grandchildren with high levels of debt, collective bargaining works against their interests. States are $5.1 trillion in debt, of which $4.4 trillion is due to unfunded pension funds. To cover the total unfunded liabilities of state governments, each person in the United States would have to pay over $14,000.

Unions also oppose common-sense educational reforms such as charter schools and voucher programs. Implementing programs that inject choice into education is necessary right now. The latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests show no change in high school students’ reading or math skill levels from four years before. Stagnation is not acceptable when less than 40 percent of students are proficient in reading and only 26 percent are proficient in math.

With unions supporting so many harmful policies, is it any wonder that over 4 million Americans would leave public sector unions if they could?

While leaving a union is possible, it is not easy. Unions have a strong interest in keeping as many full-dues paying members as they can. Personal testimonies at this week’s Heritage Foundation event, Free at Last: How and Why Union Members Leave Their Unions, confirm that unions work to frustrate those who want to leave at every turn.

Voluntary association should not be a partisan issue. The vast majority of Americans (over 80 percent) agree that union employees should be able to opt out of having their hard-earned dues used for political spending.

These issues all stem from the flawed 1977 Supreme Court case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. In this case, collective bargaining was upheld, along with forced dues collection, even if members disagreed with the political ideology of the union leadership.

A group of California school teachers is seeking to have the Supreme Court reevaluate and overturn the Abood decision on First Amendment grounds. It is common knowledge that the First Amendment protects the rights of free speech and free association, yet forced unionization continues. Even worse, a substantial portion of the dues are used to promote political ends that many members disagree with on practical or moral grounds. The case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, is working its way through the courts and offers hope that the injustice created by taking away choice is done away with for good.

Returning to Joecks’s example, imagine if magazine companies did what public sector unions do. They could force people to sign up for a subscription and refuse to allow them to stop paying for the magazine—even if they do not want it. Attorney General Eric Holder would be filing a lawsuit against them and the authorities would be involved.

Thankfully there are other solutions to public union representation. Private professional organizations, such as the Association for American Educators, offer perks such as $2 million in liability insurance and legal protection. These benefits are offered at a lower price than union protections, since AAE is focused on serving its members rather than protecting its special treatment in Washington, D.C. and state capitals.

Unions are supposed to provide a service. In any other part of the service industry, if customers began leaving, the company would need to rework its value proposition. Unions refuse to do so. Instead they do all they can to hold their “customers,” and American taxpayers, captive.

About the Author:  Jared Meyer is a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute. He is a graduate of St. John’s University where he received a B.S. in finance and a minor in the philosophy of law. Jared’s research interests include microeconomic theory and the motivations for, along with the economic effects of, governmental regulations. He was previously a research assistant for the political philosopher Douglas Rasmussen. Jared also publishes and presents on the need for a moral foundation of free markets. This article originally appeared in Public Sector Inc. and appears here with permission.

Three Ways California Governments Try To Avoid Transparency

Few politicians or government officials publicly oppose transparency in government. After all, transparency isn’t just about information; it’s a tangible acknowledgment that government officials work for citizens, not the other way around.

Still, there’s a big difference between mouthing support for transparency and actually fulfilling public records requests as required by California’s Public Records Act.

TransparentCalifornia.com, a public service website run by the California Policy Center and Nevada Policy Research Institute that contains over 3.4 million salary and pension records, has made over 2,000 public records requests in their efforts to make government compensation information easily and readily accessible to the public at large.

While most government agencies have complied, a few are employing some rather creative stalling techniques or actively refusing to comply.

Technique 1: Provide the requested records in an unusable format

Government Code § 6253.9(a) requires that agencies provide records in their “original, electronic format” when requested as such. Despite this, agencies like the Hacienda la Puente Unified School District, chose to print out and mail the records as their first response to Transparent California’s request for electronic records.

The Town of Apple Valley is trying the electronic variation of this tactic. Transparent California asks agencies to send records as an Excel file to expedite uploading the records. Apple Valley is currently only providing a PDF file that an employee printed out and then scanned through a copier, according to the file’s PDF properties. The file appears to have originally been in Excel format.

Thankfully, some cities, like Sierra Madre, eventually abandoned their ludicrous attempts to avoid transparency and have produced the requested records in the legally required format.

Technique 2: Use a court ruling declaring that records are public to refuse to provide records

The City of McFarland is currently refusing to provide employee names in conjunction with salary data, claiming that they are confidential. McFarland cites International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers, Local 21, AFL-CIO v. Superior Court as their justification for doing so.

What’s amazing is that in that case, the California Supreme Court held that employee names and salary data must be released in response to records requests. The plaintiff in that case only requested the names of only those who made over $100k, so these agencies are making the absurd claim that a ruling finding that public employees’ salary information are public records grants a privacy exemption to those making under $100k.

It could be worse. The Counties of Alpine, Modoc, and Trinity also are refusing to provide employees names, but haven’t even attempted to justify their refusal to comply with CPRA.

These agencies should consider what the Attorney General’s Office has noted: “The name of every public officer and employee, as well as the amount of his salary is a matter of public record.”

Technique 3: Stall them with kindness

The City of San Luis Obispo has perfected this. Transparent California requested payroll records on June 28th, 2013, and San Luis Obispo promptly responded indicating it received the request.
After a few clarifying emails, on August 15, the city emailed Transparent California that they were processing the request and would “forward the information to you shortly.” The records never came.

Unlike some government agencies where public employees are openly hostile to public records requesters, employees of San Luis Obispo have always been very courteous. They’ve responded promptly to Transparent California’s follow-up correspondence with apologizes for the delay and promises that the information is coming soon. While opacity with a smile is friendly, it still isn’t transparent.

In comparison, the neighboring City of Atascadero provided all of the requested records in less than two weeks time. Farther north, the City of St. Helena provided the requested records the very next day! Yet, San Luis Obispo hasn’t provided this information for the past 258 days and counting.

Government agencies that are currently stalling public record requests should join the thousands of government agencies that are complying with the law. Let the sun shine in.

Update: On March 20, 2014 after this piece was written but prior to its publication, the City of San Luis Obispo provided the records that were first requested on June 28, 2013.

About the Author:  Robert Fellner is a researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI) and joined the Institute in December 2013. Robert is currently working on the largest privately funded state and local government payroll and pensions records project in California history, TransparentCalifornia, a joint venture of the California Public Policy Center and NPRI. Robert has lived in Las Vegas since 2005 when he moved to Nevada to become a professional poker player. Robert has had a remarkably successfully poker career including two top 10 World Series of Poker finishes. Additionally, his economic analysis on the minimum wage law won first place in a 2011 essay contest hosted by the George Mason University.

Americans Should Know They Have Choices In The Workplace

In the summer of 2012, the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan think tank based in Las Vegas, initiated a campaign to let local teachers know that they could opt out of their union, the 12,000 member Clark County Education Association, by submitting written notice between July 1 and July 15.

The reaction was dazzling. Hundreds of teachers had wanted to leave the union but didn’t know that it was possible. Armed with their new-found information, over 400 chose to leave their unions.

Building on that momentum, NPRI, in conjunction with the Association of American Educators, is promoting June 23-29 this year as National Employee Freedom Week — a week dedicated to educating employees about exactly what rights they have regarding union membership. The campaign has over 50 member organizations across the nation.

When it comes to employee freedom, every state’s experience is different. California, for instance, is different than Nevada because it’s not a right-to-work state, in which employees may leave their unions at any point. In California, however, union members must still pay the portion of union dues that goes toward collective bargaining and other non-political union-related activities.

Know The Options

But if they don’t like their union’s politics, they don’t have to help fund them. The dissenters who select this “agency fee” option typically do so because they don’t like that about one-third of their dues goes for political spending. Even though over 40% of union households voted Republican in 2012, over 90% of union largesse went to Democrats and liberal causes.

This is important for employees in every state, including California. The Golden State has many dominant unions — perhaps none more powerful than the mighty California Teachers Association with its 300,000 members and its more than $211 million in political spending between 2000 and 2009 alone, with additional millions since.

This past year, an agency fee payer in the CTA could expect to get a $224 rebate. (The complete rebate would actually be more because when a teacher joins a union in California, they are actually joining three — local, state and national — and would get rebates from each of them.)

It is important to note that different unions in different states have specific opt-out periods during which a worker can exercise their right to leave. In many states, like California, one not only has to resign, but also must ask for a rebate of the political portion of their dues every year within a specified, and frequently very narrow, window of time.

To be clear, National Employee Freedom Week is not about denying anyone the right to belong to a union, but rather about letting employees know their options and providing them with the facts they need to make an informed decision that’s right for them.

Time For A Discussion

Unions are threatened when workers opt out, and typically accuse dissidents of being “free riders” or freeloaders. But if workers don’t want the services that the union has to offer, they have no choice; they have to accept them because the union demands exclusivity.

So instead of “free rider,” a better term would be “forced rider.” Teacher union watchdog Mike Antonucci explains, “The very first thing any new union wants is exclusivity. No other unions are allowed to negotiate on behalf of people in the bargaining unit. Unit members cannot hire their own agent, nor can they represent themselves.”

In other words, opting out of a union isn’t threatening to the union at all; employees still pay for the union’s collective bargaining activity, allowing unions to continue pursuing their central tasks, while simultaneously giving employees additional freedom with their paychecks and time.

It’s an appealing option for many union members: National Employee Freedom Week conducted scientific surveys of union households across the nation, and a full 33% of national respondents indicated they would opt out of union membership if given the chance.

Regardless of which path employees take, this will start a larger discussion about what employees need most to be effective in their jobs, whether they work in a classroom or a factory. Perhaps National Employee Freedom Week would be a good time for everyone — from California to Connecticut — to have that discussion.

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.

Workers of the World, Your Rights!

A week in June is being promoted to advise workers of their right to opt out of union membership.

Unknown to many employees throughout the country – especially in non-right-to-work states – they have a right to not belong to a union. This year, June 23rd – 29th is being dedicated to informing America’s wage earners of their union membership options. This project, National Employee Freedom Week (NEFW), is spearheaded by the Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI) and the Association of American Educators (AAE).

The idea for this undertaking came about in the summer of 2012 when NPRI, a non-partisan think tank based in Las Vegas, launched a small-scale campaign to let local teachers know that they could opt out of their union, the Clark County Education Association, by submitting written notice from July 1st to July 15th.

The reaction was stunning. Teachers thanked NPRI for sharing that information. Hundreds of teachers wanted to leave CCEA, each for their own unique reasons, but didn’t know it was possible or forgot because of the narrow and inconvenient drop window. Empowered by the information NPRI shared, over 400 teachers opted out by submitting written notice and over 400 more left CCEA and weren’t replaced by a union member.

The U.S. is comprised of 24 “right-to-work” states which grant workers a choice whether or not to belong to a union. In the other 26 and Washington, D.C., they don’t have to belong but must still pay the portion of union dues that goes toward collective bargaining and other non-political union-related activities. The dissenters who select this “agency fee” option typically do so because they don’t like that about one-third of their dues goes for political spending. Even though over 40 percent of union households vote Republican, over 90 percent of union largess goes to Democrats and liberal causes. (There is an exemption for religious objectors; if an employee is successful in attaining that status, they don’t have to pay any money to the union, but must donate a full dues share to an approved charity.)

As president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network, I am well aware of teachers’ frustrations. We have been providing information to educators about their rights since 2006, and thousands have exercised their right to resign from their teachers union in the Golden State. It is important to note that different unions in different states have specific opt-out periods during which a worker can exercise their right to leave. In many states, one not only has to resign, but also must ask for a rebate of the political portion of their dues every year during a specified – and frequently very narrow – window of time.

To be clear, NEFW is not about denying anyone the right to belong to a union, but rather about letting employees know their options and providing them with facts that they can use to make an informed decision. Unions are threatened when workers choose to opt out, and typically accuse dissidents of being “free riders” or freeloaders. But, if employees don’t want the services that the union has to offer, they have no choice but to accept them because the union demands exclusivity. As I wrote recently, quoting Heritage Foundation’s James Sherk,

Unions object that right-to-work is actually “right-to-freeload.” The AFL-CIO argues “unions are forced by law to protect all workers, even those who don’t contribute financially toward the expenses incurred by providing those protections.” They contend they should not have to represent workers who do not pay their “fair share.”

It is a compelling argument, but untrue. The National Labor Relations Act does not mandate unions exclusively represent all employees, but permits them to electively do so. (Emphasis added.) Under the Act, unions can also negotiate “members-only” contracts that only cover dues-paying members. They do not have to represent other employees.

The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly on this point. As Justice William Brennan wrote in Retail Clerks v. Lion Dry Goods, the Act’s coverage “is not limited to labor organizations which are entitled to recognition as exclusive bargaining agents of employees … ‘Members only’ contracts have long been recognized.”

As Sherk says, while unions don’t have to represent all employees, they do so voluntarily to eliminate any competition. So instead of “free rider,” a better term would be “forced rider.” Teacher union watchdog Mike Antonucci explains,

The very first thing any new union wants is exclusivity. No other unions are allowed to negotiate on behalf of people in the bargaining unit. Unit members cannot hire their own agent, nor can they represent themselves. Making people pay for services they neither asked for nor want is a “privilege” we reserve for government, not for private organizations. Unions are freeloading on those additional dues.

One final thought: If unions are so beneficial for workers – as they keep telling us – why must they force people to pay for their service?

I never have received a response to that question. Maybe because there is no good answer. Something for all of us to ponder during National Employee Freedom Week.

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.