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Fixing Questionable Union Spending, Practices

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Following teacher Mike Quinn’s e-mail explaining his perspective on how the Pennsylvania State Education Association and National Education Association spend members’ dues poorly, Free to Teach received a number of questions about how to fix the problem. Below are some solutions you can apply in your school district and advocate for in the state.

As Mike pointed out in his e-mail, he doesn’t have a choice about what kind of union to join, and where to pay dues. Many teachers like him would prefer to support only their local union.

Pennsylvania law gives an unfair advantage to unions like the NEA and PSEA—once they’re in a school district, they become the “exclusive bargaining representative” of everyone in the bargaining unit. There’s no choice of union, and there’s no option of staying local either once a “unified dues” system is in place, which requires union members to pay dues to their local, state and national branches.

One solution for school employees is to decertify their union with support of 30 percent of employees. (See the “Petition Under the Public Employe Relations Act” form). Decertification removes the PSEA/NEA, for example, as the representative. Teachers could then form an independent, local-only union. Jim Perialas is one such teacher who took the charge in his Michigan school district. He writes:

While a lot of my colleagues in the profession feel disenfranchised by the state’s largest union, the Michigan Education Association, they are worried about striking out on their own. Most feel they have only two options: Stay with the group in the union; or leave the union individually.

But there is another choice.

Last year, Roscommon became the first teachers union in decades to decertify from the MEA and recertify as a local union—the Roscommon Teachers Association.

Forming a “local-only” union, away from the MEA/NEA, allowed Roscommon teachers to immediately cut our annual union dues from just under $1,000 per member to $600. With those dues, we purchase liability and litigation insurance privately and have hired our own attorney to replace the uniserv (grievance advice) functions of the MEA. Our union negotiates our contract with the district, which we have been doing on our own for years.

On your local school district level, if you are unhappy with your representation, you can also resign from your union during a designated period outlined in your membership contract and/or collective bargaining agreement. You may also become a fair share fee payer, if you want further reassurance that the money your union collects goes only to collective bargaining and other representational activities.

Legally, the state’s Public Employe Relations Act of 1970 could also be reformed to remove “exclusive” status for unions, allowing workers greater choice among unions, a local union, or no union at all. In turn, unions wouldn’t be “required” to represent all workers.

The main problem with Pennsylvania law is that union membership for school teachers and other government workers is not genuinely voluntary. In most places, if you don’t officially join the union, you still have to pay a fee to the union just to stay employed. You can advocate to change this system with your legislators.

Here’s how.

First, demand that unions collect their own dues. Government unions, including teachers’ unions, are the only private organization that have the privilege of using taxpayer-financed government payroll systems to collect their members’ dues. The system allows the union to reinforce its influence at the local, state and national levels, offering little accountability to ordinary union members.

Second, ask your lawmaker to make union membership and payment voluntary through right to work reform. Freedom of association is guaranteed in the First Amendment. No person should be required to join or support any organization against his or her will.

Contact your state senator and representative to pass both of these reforms, which would go a long way to making the system fairer for all those involved. Also, encourage your friends, family, and colleagues to contact their legislators as well. If lawmakers feel there is a groundswell for change, they will respond with action.

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