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With the Fall 2020 school year under way, teachers and employees in the education sector face many unique challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic and the various actions our federal, state, and local governments are taking for K-12 education.
What are teachers’ employment rights concerning freedom of association, including union membership? The following facts debunk common misconceptions teachers often have about their rights.
Myth: I have to pay fees to a union even if I choose to not be a member.
Fact: A recent poll found that 52 percent of teachers were not aware of their constitutional right to end payments to unions, so you are not alone if you are unclear what your options are. However, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its 2018 Janus v. AFSCME decision, affirmed the First Amendment rights of all teachers and public employees across the country to decide whether to financially support a union. Prior to the Janus ruling, teachers in non-right-to-work states were still forced to pay “agency fees” to unions, which are often nearly as high as official union dues.
Fact: Unfortunately, there are many instances of unions and governments delaying, ignoring, and blocking the requests of teachers and other public employees to end paying agency fees or dues. There are also some states that have enacted laws to limit the time frame for teachers to opt out of union fees and that force teachers to make requests directly with the union instead of receiving assistance from their government employer. However, Janus clarified the rights of all workers to affirmatively consent before paying fees to a union and to be able to exercise these rights without constraint. No consent prior to Janus is valid because it was made before the constitutional rights of public employees were clarified in the Janus This is why there are active cases across the country challenging states and unions that are not providing public employees their full rights. Some states are trying to fix this, but you can seek opt-out and legal assistance to ensure you and your fellow teachers have your rights honored. (Note: See bottom of this link for multiple organizations that may be of help.)
Myth: If I leave my union, I could lose my tenure, seniority, or even my job.
Fact: While union leaders and activists can pressure you to remain a member and may bring negative attention to you for following your own conscience, the union is not your employer and does not impact your employment status.
Myth: If I leave my union, I will lose access to liability protections.
Fact: Although you may currently receive liability coverage through union membership, some states provide this service directly, and there are legal alternatives. You may be able to receive such protection through one of your personal insurance companies, organizations like the Association of American Educators, or others that provide such liability coverage for far lower costs than union membership.
Myth: If I leave my union, I will lose access to my retirement and health benefits, and my salary could be reduced.
Fact: Although union contracts may impact some of the benefits your employer provides, all workers are entitled to these regardless of union membership. It is possible that state and local governments could enact policies to change this in the future. For instance, they could end exclusive representation powers for unions so that unions only negotiate for their members while non-members would receive benefits through separate contracts. This is not practiced anywhere in schools or public sector workplaces at this time, and you will remain free to change your union status in the future if joining or leaving your union becomes a preferred option for you.
Myth: If I leave my union, I will be turning my back on my teaching profession and colleagues.
Fact: While membership may be higher in your school or district, nationally less than half of all elementary, middle and high school teachers are members of a union, and only about 33 percent of workers in education, training, and library professions are members overall, meaning your choice to leave a union is not uncommon in the teaching profession. More importantly, this is your decision, and leaving the union can help raise the profile of actions you want to see in your school and in the teaching profession. Union leaders can make organizational changes you want in order to earn part of your hard-earned paycheck again, or you can advocate for your goals independently or with alternative groups that differ from your union.
Teachers deserve, and have, the constitutional right of power over their paychecks, who they associate with, and who speaks for them. This means it is the choice of each and every teacher to decide whether or not it makes sense to support a union.