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Resigning Union Membership
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A year after Janus, teachers still don’t know their rights

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As we head into Independence Day celebrations, it’s good to take a look at how public school teachers’ freedom of association is faring since last year’s Janus v. AFSCME decision, which banned unions from charging non-member educators so-called “fair share fees.”

A June Teacher Freedom poll has revealed that most teachers don’t know they can leave the two main teachers’ unions—NEA and AFT—without penalty. In fact, the PSEA, which has a 180,000-strong membership of current, retired, and student teachers, has said it has lost less than 1 percent, or about 1,000 members (though nearly all of its 6,704 fee payers declined to join).

Teacher Freedom asked YouGov to poll 1,003 teachers across America about what they thought of union membership since the Janus court decision. More than 3 in 4 teachers still don’t know about the court decision, even while they generally support the freedom of association that the decision confers. That means organizations like Free to Teach and states like Pennsylvania have much work to do in helping teachers understand their rights.

Apart from being largely unaware of the Janus decision itself, only 48 percent of teachers in the poll were aware of the ruling’s benefit: that teachers who didn’t join or who left a union would no longer have to pay a non-member union fee. In fact, 28 percent of teachers who said they re-evaluated union membership in the last year had left or were more inclined to leave. A whopping 82 percent said they were unaware of anyone contacting them about the Janus decision—an argument in favor of pending legislation that would require government agencies to inform employees of their full rights

The Teacher Freedom poll demonstrates two other major themes. First, there’s a notable gap between what teachers know of their rights, and how they think union membership should ideally work: 74 percent, for example, think union membership should be voluntary. 

Second, teachers are confused about what happens to their jobs if they do leave a union. As the slide below shows, many think they will lose the pay and benefits their union negotiated if they stop being members. (They won’t). 

Most respondents—70 percent—understood correctly that resigning means losing the union’s professional liability insurance, and that’s significant because many teachers are afraid of being sued. Overall, few teachers could answer all the questions below correctly.

The poll’s findings dovetail with what Free to Teach has learned in the last year. Through interactions with teachers statewide, it’s becoming clear to us that the fear of losing job security or being “alone” during disputes with administrators is a powerful concern for teachers. In addition, many educators value and appreciate the work of their local school district union. Even in the national poll, 20 percent of teachers in unionized workplaces said they would prefer being in a local, independent union. 

In Pennsylvania, it’s also important to note that even when teachers and other government workers want to resign, they are often trapped by narrow exit windows. Such “maintenance of membership” provisions are authorized by the state’s Public Employe Relations Act and written into union contracts. If a worker misses the 15-day window to leave at the end of a multi-year contract, they’re simply stuck. Lawmakers need to amend state law to fix this problem, but in the post-Janus interim, many employees have resorted to suing their unions in order to leave.

Teachers don’t just need to know their rights. They need to understand that several options (like a local-only union) are available to them. And then workers should be able to exercise their rights without union roadblocks—or fear of the unknown.

Now that’s the type of independence really worth celebrating.

For the full Teacher Freedom poll results, click here.

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