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David Kirkpatrick


Teacher Rights and Their Unions

by David W. Kirkpatrick,
Senior Education Fellow, US Freedom Foundation
 

One of the most notorious violations of teachers' rights, and an ongoing battle, derives from what dues, if any, nonmembers must pay the union.

In its Beck decision in 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that workers can only be required to pay dues or fees for costs directly related to collective bargaining. The decision awarded a dues reduction of 79 percent to Harry Beck, who had been an active union member and who launched the appeal.

It shouldn't surprise you that neither unions, including teacher unions, nor government agencies such as the National Labor Relations Board, make any effort to notify workers, including teachers, of this right.

A telling example of pro-union bias where neutrality should be expected was demonstrated by, of all positions, President Clinton's Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, who has been quoted as saying, "In order to maintain themselves, unions have got to have some ability to strap their members to the mast." Imagine this same view expressed substituting "government" for "unions" and "voters" for "members." While seldom stated so bluntly this attitude is much too common in practice by both union and government officials.

Contrary to union rhetoric about defending teachers rights, such defense is highly selective. In reality, unions have been so successful in keeping workers unaware of their rights in many specific instances that one poll found 78 percent of them didn't know they need not pay for union activities unrelated to bargaining..

President George H. W. Bush, who was elected in 1988, the year the Beck decision was handed down, and who took office in January of 1989, had the Labor Department require unions to publicly reveal what portion of their dues workers could keep. He also ordered federal contractors to post notices telling workers of their rights. One of President Bill Clinton's first actions upon taking office was to rescind both orders. So much for "feeling your pain."

Ironically, if you asked the average American which President, Bush or Clinton, was more supportive of workers rights, the majority probably believes it was Clinton or, more generically, it would be the Democrat not the Republican. The odds may also be good that you wouldn't have to ask anyone because that is your impression as well.

In any event the issue of what are called "agency fees", is still a controversial one, largely because, while the Court said Beck was entitled to a refund of 79% it didn't establish a fixed rate or dollar amount across the board. This leaves unions relatively free to determine what share of their dues may be allocated to bargaining and nonbargaining costs.

As a result unions have played games with the requirement by claiming that they spend most of their dues income on bargaining costs leaving very little to be unpaid or refunded to nonmembers. This tactic hasn't always worked because claims that almost all of their dues goes for bargaining - all but a few dollars out of hundreds - have resulted in successful challenges to return more.

Which raises a point that apparently hasn't been made in this ongoing debate:

Unions regularly deny agency fee payers the right to vote, arguing they are not members, an argument that has some merit. However, since they are paying a full share of the costs of negotiations, and arguably more, why should they not at least be allowed to vote on the contract? Also, while the unions insist on being able to take nonmembers' money it strenuously objects to their having any say about the terms of the contract as it is being developed or the final form that is submitted for a vote to adopt,

Is this fair?

In brief, despite claims that any critic of union procedures is anti-union and out to destroy them, the problem for many us, including longtime union members such as myself, is not the existence of unions, the need for which still exists in some situations, but the lack of union democracy, a lack that is virtually universal throughout the labor movement.

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