The Professionals Who Shouldn’t Decide
“Treat teachers like professionals. But force them to join a union whether they like it or not.”
If you think those two sentences seem like cognitive dissonance, inherent contradiction or maybe blatant hypocrisy, you’re not alone. Open defiance of forced unionism is becoming a dominant political trend in whatever we’re supposed to call this decade we’re now in. The new resistance strikes right at the heart of what had been the dirty little secret underpinning teachers unions with hundreds of millions of dollars of dues payments every year in little places like California, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Illinois.
Like the most exciting sports contests, this game is currently tied. According to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, 25-states still force certain workers to join unions and 25-states do not. Same story by population count — Professor Richard Vedder of Ohio University says the Right to Work / Forced Unionism population count in America breaks down as 48%/52%. [Turns out the number of Right to Quit Teachers Unions states (21) is slightly different than the count of Right to Work states (25), but it’s still close.]
The near tie game belies the momentum story, however, as the people fighting compulsory union membership have been feeling the wind in the sails of late. In 2012, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder ignored the wishes of state homeboy Michael Moore to make Michigan the 24th Right to Work state. While that law exempted police officers and firefighters — meaning they could still be forced into a union — a new bill in Lansing might free those folks to make individual decisions about being in a union as well.
Treat teachers like professionals. But force them to join a union whether they like it or not.
Then, just this past March, Governor Walker pushed the concept beyond just teachers, signing a bill to make Wisconsin, the 25th Right to Work state. It’s always amused me when union leaders equate letting workers decide whether to be in their club with “busting” their club. You might recognize this sophistry when it comes to school choice. Letting parents decide whether to leave a district school will often be described as “diverting money away from the district.” Wait, aren’t the individuals making decisions the ones doing the busting/diverting? Not to the education establishment. Their logic would hold that a stand-up comedian who clears the room because he’s so unfunny should really blame the guy who left the door unlocked for diverting audience members out of the Laugh Shack — not his own unfunny jokes. But I digress.
The big picture is that for years, union leaders have pleaded like lovelorn soap opera actors about how we desperately need to raise the national prestige and respect that our nation offers these unsung heroes called teachers. But let those heroes make up their own minds about whether a group gets to lift $1,000 of their wallets every year, sent to sometimes far away places like Sacramento, Trenton and Springfield — and all that respect erodes like the fidelity of the soap opera newlywed doctor.
That’s been the debate: Respect individual teachers by letting them decide on unionism. Or respect individual teachers and tell them to shut the hell up if they want to quit the union. Now we get to today.
Breaking news from this morning reveals that a new protagonist might just end this debate with a single U.S. Supreme Court decision: Fourth grade public school teacher Rebecca Friedrichs of Anaheim, California. She had the temerity to wonder why if other college educated professionals like doctors, lawyers, accountants and engineers weren’t required by law to join a union, why should teachers? What part of being a professional includes being denied the right to negotiate your own salary? She’s also seen the California Teachers Association supporting causes that she opposed with the dues money it collected from teachers.
Friedrichs and her co-plaintiffs are hoping that the Court will go a step further than it did in the 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education decision. Abood said that public employees like Friedrichs could technically quit their union anywhere in the country, but they might still be on the hook to pay a portion of their union dues, known as agency fees. It was supposed to be compensation for the value those workers get from the union’s apolitical work. For example, the unions will say that when they collectively bargain a new contract, teachers like Ms. Friedrichs get the benefit of that negotiation, even if they’re stopped paying for the union’s political work. To be a deadbeat and get this valuable assistance for free, unions say, teachers like Ms. Friedrichs would be a “free rider.” My, that sounds unfair, doesn’t it?
But Friedrichs says those agency fees make her a “forced rider.” She feels just fine about negotiating her own salary without the union’s help, no different than an engineer, accountant, lawyer or other… ahem, professional.
Full disclosure: I have a personal connection to this story. I interviewed Rebecca Friedrichs via Skype for Choice Media a few months ago and allowed her to tell her story. And I’ll be moderating her first public appearance since the U.S. Supreme Court announced it will hear the case at the FreedomFest Conference in Las Vegas on Saturday, July 11. Please join us if you can.
And just in case it’s not yet clear, I hope Rebecca Friedrichs and her co-plaintiffs win. Why? Because if she says she doesn’t need a union’s help, I’ll take her word for it. After all, she’s a professional.