Teachers unions insist they are a necessary part of a teacher’s career. A teacher paying nine hundred dollars per year in union dues over twenty years will have paid $18,000. Presumably this is for collective bargaining, legal protection and a “voice” in education policy. But what do they actually receive in return?
Collective bargaining includes negotiating compensation packages. All teachers are paid via a lock-step salary schedule. This means no teacher receives monetary recognition for a job well done. The union maintains the impression that any teacher can do the job as well as another. Individual successes have no place. Everyone’s workload is to be the same. Innovation is stifled. Morale plummets when workers are boxed into such conformity.
Most clubs, associations and the like are transparent about how monies are spent. Union members are not given audited fiscal reports. Few teachers really know the cost of collective bargaining. Nor do they know what percent of dues covers their legal services. When I conducted a survey, only one-third could tell me the yearly amount of their dues. Few could say if dues went to the local, state or national union affiliate. Why are members kept in the dark?
In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court case Janus vs. AFSCME freed government employees from mandatory union dues. These were deemed a violation of free speech and association. Unions could no longer require dues. They also were ordered to explain that membership meant relinquishing some free speech and association rights to the union. Rather than explain this to members, the union got busy placing loopholes in the system. Members signed up – told by their union it was “recommitment” in light of “people out to bust unions”. It was spun as an act of solidarity. It should’ve been a time of truth-telling and informing. To this day, a large percentage of teachers have no idea what the Janus decision means for them.
It would make sense for teachers and parents to decide what is taught to students. Instead, union organizers sit on committees with government leaders. There, they make decisions for teachers, parents and students. School boards are side-stepped. Teachers’ union dues pay for lobbying and legislating. Except, teachers haven’t had a say. We didn’t ask for No Child Left Behind, Positive Behavior Intervention, Common Core, Comprehensive Sexuality Education, Social Emotional Learning or the Every Student Succeeds Act. But teacher money via unions promoted all of it. And the great teachers in this nation certainly didn’t want the students they love kept out of school for over a year! Yes, the unions made that decision too. Perhaps “teachers” should be removed from the moniker “teachers unions”.
The number one reason teachers give for paying a union is the legal protection. However, unions do not keep lawyers on retainer for the teachers they represent. Unpaid, busy coworkers accompany those reporting a grievance to administration. Grievances are handled by a series of steps outlined in teachers’ contracts. Most teachers haven’t read their own contract. It may be a shock when no union lawyer comes on the scene. Unresolved grievances may end up in the final procedural step, arbitration. In this situation, the union and the taxpayers (school district) split the cost 50/50. The National Education Association (NEA) spends about $6,000,000 per year on legal services for its teachers, according to 2019 NEA business item #8. There are rigid requirements for teachers to qualify for paid legal assistance from the union, according to their legal services plan. These include whether the situation is in the union’s best interest, important to public education and within the union’s budget, to name a few. None consider the teacher’s needs.
It appears teachers get nothing but smoke and mirrors for their thousands of dollars in union membership dues. I doubt the general public appreciates their teachers being harmed in these ways.
Kate Bowers has taught in public schools for over twenty years. She owns an educational services company, and is author of Publicly Schooled: One Teacher’s Unsettling Discoveries.