By Keith Williams

As a former public school teacher, I can tell you: plenty of false messages circulate about union membership. Is union membership required? Why do government employees belong to them and whom do unions benefit (or harm)? There are usually two stories: one the teachers’ unions PSEA and AFT-PA want you to believe, and the truth. (FYI, if you’re another type of government worker, this is still relevant–AFSCME, SEIU, and UFCW also peddle these myths).

Free to Serve wants you to know what’s up. Below, I give you our series (initially published on Free to Teach) on 6 major myths that unions hope you won’t question.

MYTH #1: Nobody is “forced” to join a union.

The Truth: It’s technically true that after the Janus v. AFSCMEdecision, no government employee 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,” legally sanctioned in state law as “maintenance of membership.” Also, union fear tactics and lack of knowledge among new government workers results in many becoming union members out of anxiety about the unknown.

Missing “MOM” resignation windows affects countless teachers in Pennsylvania each year—educators like Cheri, who was denied the right to leave the union when she wished. In fact, this is such an enduring First Amendment issue, it is the subject of a January 2019 federal court case brought by Francisco Molina, a former social services aide at the Lehigh County Office of Children and Youth. He further alleges that union representatives used pressure, intimidation, and harassment in his workplace.

That’s why Free to Teach exists: to arm you with knowledge and support. If you want to resign, the PSEA and AFT-PA shouldn’t be using tired rules like “maintenance of membership” to stop you.

MYTH #2: Dues aren’t used for politics.

The Truth: Let’s straighten this out once and for all. 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 elections contributions separately through its political action committee, PACE.

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 millionof teachers’ union dues on “political activities and lobbying.” Just look at the PSEA’s Voice Magazineexamine 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.

That’s why Janus v. AFSCMEspecifically protected workers’ First Amendment rights—because government employees shouldn’t have to fund a hyper-political organization they don’t agree with.

MYTH #3: The Janus case is an attack on unions.

The Truth: Teachers’ unions have condemned the vindication of First Amendment rights in the Janusdecision. Of course, they were afraid of losing millions of fee payers—PSEA, for example, had 6,704. That means they may have lost over $3 millionin non-member fees post-Janus. But was that money rightfully theirs?

Unions becoming weaker or stronger has nothing to do with Janus. 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.

Mark Januswas a child support specialist who was similarly mistreated. Thanks to his victory in court, unions have the opportunity to become stronger than ever: by actually earningthe loyalty of government workers who may now freely choose membership, and by genuinely attracting new members. If unions are willing to demonstrate their value, there’s no reason they shouldn’t thrive in a post-Janus environment.

MYTH #4: Workers who don’t pay the union are “free riders.”

The Truth: When lawmakers enacted Pennsylvania’s 1970 Public Employe 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.  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 “fair share fees” came about.

Unions have long called non-members who don’t want their representation “free riders” and “scabs.” 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 salary, workplace conditions, and benefits.

The Truth: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, “unified dues” systems collect payments for local, state, and national unions as a bundle. Thanks to its cost-heavy affiliation with the NEA, the PSEA can devote only 19% of its expenditures on “representational activities.” The rest pads the bank accounts of the 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 local unions 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 my former union, the Conewago Valley Education Association, 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 workers’ best interests.

The Truth: 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. 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.

Teacher dissatisfaction is reflected by how many educators chose to become fee payers instead of union members pre-JanusFrom 2013 to 2018, the number of fee payers in the PSEA grew 20 percent, from 5,603 to 6,704. (The fee payer number for 2018, of course, represents the peak before the PSEA reveals its post-Janusfigures, which will consist only of private-sector fee payers.)

The host of resignations and lawsuits illustrate what many unions have become: political organizations seeking to preserve their influence at any cost.

Instead of obliging unions who spread misinformation, we need to confront each and every fib. With the above truths, government workers don’t need to be fooled. 

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