Commentary By Larry Sand
Years ago, when I was teaching, I asked then United Teachers of Los Angeles president A.J. Duffy at a union meeting why teachers weren’t responsible for paying their own dues. He replied, “They might forget.” I didn’t respond, but knew that some of my colleagues were thinking what I was thinking. Forget? No. Choose not to pay? Yes.
In California, and throughout much of the country, union dues are deducted by the local school district from teachers’ paychecks, just as federal and state withholding taxes are. The school district then turns the money over to the local teachers union. The teachers union, a private organization, doesn’t pay a penny for the transactions; it’s the taxpayers who foot the bill for this service. In fact, payroll deduction is de rigeur for most public employee unions. (As an NRA and AAA member, I pay what I owe via credit card and there is no government involvement. Why should teachers unions be treated any differently?)
Stepping up on this issue is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who wants to stop this abuse in the Sunshine State. At a recent event in Orlando, he asserted that the government shouldn’t play a role in deducting teacher union dues. He explained that planned legislation would create more of a guarantee that money would wind up in teachers’ pockets and not be “frittered away by interest groups who get involved into the school system,” adding that he thinks that he will get legislative support for his idea.
Elisabeth Messenger, interim CEO of Americans for Fair Treatment, a group focused on educating employees on their union rights, agrees with DeSantis. “Automatic dues deduction uses government resources to make it easier for unions to recruit and retain members and creates confusion for workers who may think their workplace union is endorsed by their employer or that membership is required by their employer. In signing this legislation, Governor DeSantis would be taking a huge step in protecting teachers’ private information and ensuring the Florida state government is not a middleman in funding partisan politics.”
The Florida Education Association is, not surprisingly, very unhappy with the DeSantis plan. In a statement, the union said, “The past few weeks, FEA has been asking educators to fill out a wish list with what they’re hopeful for in 2023. Common themes have been less testing, more resources and support, more stability — all things that would help us better serve our students and alleviate the teacher and staff shortage. Gov. DeSantis, however, appears to prioritize politics. Only a Grinch would attack teachers’ freedom to join in [sic] union to advocate for our students and schools.”
Freedom to join? Hardly.
DeSantis, who was reelected by a nearly 20-point margin in November, also indicated that he supports setting a threshold for unions to represent teachers, which would involve at least 50% of teachers being members of their local union.
While I am full support of DeSantis “Freedom Blueprint,” he could have gone even further. While clearly the government should not be collecting union dues – in effect, becoming the union’s bagman – why should 51 percent of the teachers in a school district be able to drag the dissenting 49 percent into collective bargaining negotiations? I maintain that those who don’t want to join a union should not be forced to be a part of the collective bargaining unit at all. Those teachers should be free to negotiate for themselves, and not be required to have anything to do with a union. The idea of a “members only” union is fair to both sides, but, of course, is invariably reviled by monopoly-possessed unionistas. (In 2018 the Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that teachers and other public employees did not have to pay a union as a condition of employment, but the decision didn’t address forced representation.)
If I had DeSantis’ ear, I would also suggest he get involved with fighting against the ridiculous step-and-column method of paying teachers. Throughout Florida and much of the country, public school teachers are part of an industrial style “step and column” salary regimen, which treats teachers as interchangeable widgets. They get salary increases for the number of years they work, and for taking (often meaningless) professional development classes. The unions keep talented teachers from entering and staying in the profession by insisting on a quality-blind way of paying them. Great teachers are worth more – a lot more – and should receive higher pay than their less capable colleagues. But they don’t. Also, if a district is short on science teachers, it’s only logical to pay them more than other teachers whose fields are over-populated. But stifling union contracts don’t allow for this kind of flexibility.
And while he is at it, Mr. DeSantis should ensure that every teacher in the state knows that when they join their local teachers union, they are really signing up with two other unions, the state affiliate and the national union.
In Florida, the FEA’s yearly portion of teachers’ dues is $229, while the National Education Association skims $204. The rest of the dues money stays with the local union. (In California, the NEA state affiliate – the CTA – takes a whopping $768 per year!)
And just what does the NEA do with their share of union dues?
In a word: politics. In fact the NEA spent twice as much on politics in 2021 as it did on representing its members – $66 million compared to $32 million, according the union’s LM2, a report that must be filed with the federal Department of Labor. Additionally, Open Secrets reports – conservative teachers take note – that over 99% of the union’s political spending went to Democrats.
But first things first. Let’s hope Governor DeSantis succeeds with his plan to remove the government as the teachers unions’ bagman. There is obviously much more work that needs to be done, but this is a terrific jumping off point, and will hopefully be an inspiration to governors in other states.