Yesterday, to kick off National Employee Freedom Week, we rejoiced (again) over the fact that teachers are no longer required to pay for union representation they do not want. But that prompts an objection from many teachers that we encounter repeatedly on our Facebook page, which goes something like this: “Well, then give back the years of salary and benefits the union negotiated for you! Freeloaders!”

We feel the need to address this, since it’s cropped up a few hundred (okay, dozen) times.

First, we actually agree: if teachers aren’t paying for union representation, they should not receive union benefits. Teachers who never joined the union and/or were fee payers actually wanted this state of affairs from the beginning of their employment. They are happy to negotiate their own contracts.  

The problem is, they never had the option of representing themselves. As we’ve noted elsewhere,

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 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.

At this point, state law should change so unions represent only their members. If this is truly a concern for the PSEA and AFT-PA, then they should advance such a reform in Harrisburg. In the end, securing individual worker freedom means unions have to cater more closely to their membership. That’s a win-win.

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