Virginia election is a teachable moment for unions
Published in the Washington Examiner
November 28, 2021
F. Vincent Vernuccio,Senior Labor Policy Advisor for Workers for Opportunity and president of the Institute for the American Worker
Virginians who support giving parents more say in schools spoke loud and clear at the ballot box this month. But the conversation isn’t over until policymakers also consider the rights of teachers.
To many lawmakers, government union leaders are the de facto spokespeople for teachers. In fact, last year, lawmakers in Richmond expanded unions’ power by enabling Virginia school boards to allow unions to negotiate monopoly contracts for all teachers, even those who did not want a union representing them.
As these unions gained power, however, teachers faced unprecedented challenges.
They watched children with learning differences flounder, English-language learners miss out, and students fall behind in math and reading a little more every day. But teachers had little recourse. As the months dragged on, unions that supported school closures refused to relent.
This disconnect between unions and their members isn’t just a Virginia phenomenon. Across the country, teachers unions exercise their power at the expense of individual teachers’ rights.
In many states, for instance, schools take money from teachers’ paychecks and give it to a union without ever getting direct written consent from the teachers. If the union reports that a teacher wants to join, the employer can begin deducting union dues from the teacher’s paycheck. There are few safeguards, and, in many cases, the school will never go directly to new teachers and ask if they actually want money taken from their paychecks and given to the union. Worse, those deductions could continue for the rest of a teacher’s career.
Beyond overlooking teachers’ rights, the process defies the safeguards of basic bookkeeping.
Until 2018, many states also allowed union fees to be deducted from teachers’ paychecks even if those teachers opted not to join the union. These were known as agency or “fair share” fees, an ironic term considering that teachers had no choice about whether to pay them.
Teachers, along with other public-sector workers, gained ground after a 2018 Supreme Court ruling, Janus v. AFSCME . The court reminded the country that teachers have First Amendment rights just like the rest of us. That means they cannot have union fees withdrawn from their paychecks without their consent.
Even after the court’s decision, however, unions are finding creative ways to limit teachers’ choices.
Teachers who want to quit their union may discover logistical hurdles meant to make resignation difficult. Opt-out periods may occur only a couple of weeks a year . Those who miss the window get stuck paying dues for another 12 months.
Meanwhile, teachers who remain union members may never have a chance to choose which union represents them. Some unions were voted in decades before their current members joined or, in some cases, before they were even born.
Which brings us back to Virginia.
Some pundits cast Virginia’s story as parents versus teachers. They misunderstood. In reality, these two groups want many of the same things.
Parents and teachers both want to be heard. They want a voice in how education works, during the pandemic and beyond. And they want the money pulled from their hard-earned paychecks to support their values and priorities. For teachers, that means not having money deducted and paid to unions without express consent.
Getting public education back on track will be a yearslong process. But perhaps it begins by recognizing teachers as individuals, not simply members of a group that purports to speak for them. And it means respecting teachers as dedicated professionals who deserve to have their paychecks, and their constitutional right to free speech, protected.
It’s a teachable moment for any policymaker who’s willing to listen.
F. Vincent Vernuccio is a senior labor policy adviser for Workers for Opportunity and president of the Institute for the American Worker.