There’s no doubt that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his proposals have initiated a long-overdue dialogue about state budget crises and the role public-sector unions play. The upheaval in Wisconsin appears to be the beginning of a domino effect for about a half-dozen states looking to rein in spending and give public school teachers a greater choice about whether or not to join a union.
Union members, including many teachers, have been crowding the statehouse in Madison to protest proposed legislative changes. Union leaders, however, are focused less on teachers paying more for health care and pensions and concentrating more on the union’s ability to bargain collectively and collect dues.
These union leaders are dismissive of the fact that there are thousands of teachers in the Badger State who would rather not be represented by a union and do not want to pay exorbitant dues. What about their rights?
Wisconsin law allows compulsory unionism. That means public school teachers in Wisconsin are forced to pay the union - a private organization with a partisan political agenda - simply for the privilege of having a job.
The Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) agreed that its 98,000 members will pay more for health care and pensions - as long as bargaining and forced dues are preserved. That certainly calls into question what the WEAC is really protecting - its members or its source of income. In fact, it will fight to the end to preserve the holy grail of unionism - forced dues.
Forced dues are serious money for the teachers unions. According to data compiled by the National Institute for Labor Relations Research in 2008, the two teachers unions - the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) - collected $2 billion in union dues in 2007 through their state affiliates. Out of that $2 billion, $1.3 billion came from states that allow forced dues.
Twenty-two states have labor laws similar to Wisconsin’s. In 2007, those 23 states employed 52 percent of the nation’s teachers but were the source of the vast majority of all the money collected by the NEA and AFT. Not surprisingly, union dues are much higher in states that have forced unionism - sometimes twice as high as in states where teachers have the option not to pay the union. In Wisconsin, teachers pay more than $800 per year.
The fact is that the unions are fighting to protect themselves and their income, not their membership. While the teachers unions claim to be pro-teacher, what could be more democratic than allowing each person to decide if she or he wants to be a member of that union? By teachers choosing union membership, the union truly would be more representative of its membership, but of course, it would collect far fewer dollars for the union itself.
Under forced unionism, the union speaks for the member even if that member disagrees with the union’s agenda. There’s nothing fair, transparent or democratic about the current system. No teacher should be forced to pay a union to have employment - and especially not when that union takes political positions that clearly conflict with many teachers’ personal views and beliefs.
Furthermore, the proposed legislation does not outlaw collective bargaining. Instead, unions in Wisconsin will be able to bargain on behalf of those who choose to pay for their services. The change is that the state law would no longer force workers, including teachers, to pay union dues. So, in effect, the unions are fighting to protect their monopoly and, naturally, monopolists never want to lose their monopoly.
The shenanigans of the WEAC and some of its members over the past few days have been nothing short of an embarrassment to the teaching profession. Strikes, sickouts and bogus doctors’ notes have no place among professionals.
A nonunion educators organization called the Association of American Educators (AAE) was founded in 1994 for teachers who do not identify with the teachers unions or their tactics. AAE is adamantly against forced unionism, believing that all teachers, as college-educated professionals, can decide for themselves wheth-er or not they want to join a union. Like members of all other professions, teachers can sign and work under professional contracts that offer protections and benefits, yet they don’t need a union as a middleman. This practice already is standard in seven right-to-work states. Further, thousands of teachers do not support the liberal platform of the unions, including political contributions and support for controversial social issues.
Undoubtedly, teachers across America should be evaluating whether teachers unions really represent them as professionals. It’s important for them to know that they have a choice in membership. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with giving teachers a choice - unless, of course, you are a union leader.
Gary Beckner is the executive director of the Association of American Educators.