As anyone who’s been a public school teacher can tell you, plenty of false messages circulate about union membership: whether it’s required, why it exists, and whom it benefits (or harms). On most issues, there are two stories: the one the PSEA or AFT-PA want you to believe, and the truth.
Free to Teach wants you to know what’s up. Below are six of the most common questions teachers’ unions don’t want you to question.
Myth #1—Nobody can force you to join a union.
While technically true, the statement hides a world of coercion employees feel regarding union membership.
It’s true that after the Janus v. AFSCME decision, no teacher or public education worker can be forced to pay fair share fees. However, unionization is still coercive in a number of ways. For example, members who are not happy with their union and want to resign are often trapped for years because of narrow resignation windows, officially known and legally sanctioned in state law as “maintenance of membership.” (Literally, a “MOM”).
Myth #2: Dues aren’t used for politics
When teachers’ unions repeatedly say union dues cannot be used for politics, they mean very narrowly that union dues cannot be given directly to political candidates. Only that much is true. The PSEA, for example, collects contributions separately for its political action committee, PACE, for such purposes (which they conveniently offer as a simple sign-up box on the union’s own membership enrollment form).
However, as we explain in this annually updated piece, Where Do Your Union Dues Go?, member dues can be spent on a variety of “soft” political activities, such as get-out-the-vote drives, election mailers, lobbying of legislators, and public marketing campaigns. In 2017-18, the PSEA spent $2.9 million of teachers’ union dues on “political activities and lobbying.” Just look at the PSEA’s Voice Magazine, examine letters to members like this one to Mary, or look at salaries to PSEA lobbyists, and you’ll get an idea of just how much politicking there is from union dues.
Myth #3: The Janus case is an attack on unions
The major government unions have spread the idea that the 2018 landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Janus v. AFSCME, was just a way to weaken them. The case overturned over 40 years of precedent when justices ruled that government workers who were not union members would no longer be required to pay labor unions “fair share fees” just to keep their jobs.
A union is at its strongest when it fulfills its true purpose: supporting and advocating for its members. Yet thousands of union members across the country have come forward with stories (and even lawsuits) about how a union takes their money with no clear benefit, won’t communicate or respond to their needs, and flat-out exploits them for power and influence. Recently, Pennsylvania state workers from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU Local 668) filed a class action lawsuit against the social services union challenging its practice of allowing employees to resign only during specified exit windows.
Myth #4: Workers who don’t pay the union are “free riders.”
When lawmakers enacted Pennsylvania’s 1970 Public Employee Relations Act, labor unions lobbied for and won the right to represent ALL employees in a bargaining unit, whether such employees were union members or not. This made a union such as the PSEA or AFT-PA the “exclusive representative” of teachers in a school district. Individual teachers could not negotiate their own contracts, nor could competing unions represent and collectively bargain for employees in that workplace either.
Unions then argued that non-members were “free riders”: workers who were enjoying the salaries, benefits, and grievance representation that unions secured without contributing a dime to union expenses. That’s how the practice of charging agency, or fair share fees, came about (and was originally supported by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1977’s Abood v. Detroit Board of Education). But just look at the sequence of events: exclusive representation became law 18 years before Pennsylvania teachers’ unions were legally authorized to charge teachers fair share fees through Act 84 of 1988. Teachers were robbed of any choice in representation long before unions accused non-members of being freeloaders.
Unions have long deflected with slurs like “free rider” and “scab” when held accountable for their actions. But these insults don’t change the facts. Teachers who don’t join the union, and now don’t pay fair share fees, are not “free riders.” They’ve always been forced riders.
Myth #5: Your local union uses your dues to negotiate your pay.
Does your union local–the folks in your school district you see and work with every day–get the benefit of your union dues? Sadly, no.
Local union reps are dedicated people with roots in the community. If they could, they would probably use every penny of your dues money advocating for you. Unfortunately, the NEA and AFT-PA are organized according to a “unified dues” system. That means teachers do not have the option of paying just their local union for negotiating salaries, benefits, and working conditions. If you pay one entity, you have to pay them all: local, state, and national. In fact, thanks to affiliations with state and national unions, the PSEA devotes only 19% of its expenditures on “representational activities.” The rest pads the bank accounts of the state and national union bureaucracy, where it is used for six-figure executive salaries, non-local elections, and even playing the stock market.
Even more depressing, when you look closely at the breakdown of a teacher’s dues, very little stays local. Most Pennsylvania school districts are organized by the PSEA, and many PSEA locals do not even charge a local portion of union dues–all dues money goes to the state and national affiliates. Local associations that do charge dues, such as Conewago Valley Education Association (where Americans for Fair Treatment Director Keith Williams taught), charge about $30 a year–barely 5% of total annual dues per teacher.
In other words, teachers trust their local union the most, but their money is funding a distant, inefficient, bureaucracy that barely represents them.
Myth #6: Unions always advocate for teachers’ best interests.
All too often, union leaders act in the union’s best interest at the expense of workers. Take the case of Mark Kiddo, for example, an Erie Water Works employee who is suing AFSCME, his government employee union. AFSCME withheld vital information from Mark and his co-workers, namely a superior salary and benefits package their employer was offering. The benefits plan structure didn’t fit AFSCME’s prior messaging, so they opted not to tell the Erie Water Works employees about the opportunity at all.
In many other cases, such maneuvering does not become so public. Cheri Gensel, a high school teacher from northeastern Pennsylvania, told Free to Teach her story of years-long frustration with the Pennsylvania State Education Association. Last year, for example, the North Pocono Education Association raised tensions between educators and the administration unnecessarily by delaying approval over a change in prescription drug carriers that would have saved the district and employees about $200,000 in health care costs. (In the teachers’ contract, the administration has the right to adopt a new health care carrier if coverage and benefits were equal or better than before).