An Open Letter to Teachers Fighting Fair Share Fees: How Your Fight Could Hurt Students
By: John T. McCrann
My fellows citizens and colleagues,
In this post, I will address concerns that I have about what could happen if those who are trying to undermine established state laws are successful.
There are thousands of big and small decisions that must be made about our work lives; many of these decisions, the kind that affect hundreds of people, are codified in a contract or collective bargaining agreement with the district. A majority of these decisions relate to mundane aspects of our jobs which are disconnected from hot button political issues, but a few are controversial—particularly in an era of controversy over how best to support students, tight budgets, and high expectations.
The plaintiffs in the Friedrichs case would have us believe that they are fighting for the “individual right” to make these kinds of decisions for themselves, but some level of collective decision making is necessary in a large bureaucracy.
Somebody will make decisions about how to allocate resources and those decisions will create a frame for the worklife of every individual teacher in a given district. The question that we need to answer is: what group is best positioned to make decisions that will support both students and teachers?
The teachers who work every day with our nation’s children should have a say in decisions around class size, arts education, health education, and policy around testing. These are not political issues as the plaintiffs would have us believe, they are educational ones. The fair-share fee system is the most practical way to educators play a role in making them.
Fair-share fees are not the same as union dues. No one in New York or California has to join the union; however, in these states, unions are required by law to represent all teachers in the collective bargaining process (emphasis added):
“…in the jurisdictions that Friedrichs would affect, the legislatures have opted for something called the “fair-share” or “agency fee” system. Under this system, a majority of public employees in a given “bargaining unit”—the school system, say, or the police agencies—can vote to designate a union as their “exclusive bargaining agent.” That union then must representall the workers in the bargaining unit.”
Unlike the group of 10 unelected plaintiffs, the union’s leadership is democratically elected by teachers.
Unlike the group of 10 plaintiffs who have never won a policy victory for students, unions have negotiated thousands of reforms that benefit students: early unions were leaders in granting access to education for non-white students and recently unions in Seattle and Chicago negotiated for students to have more physical activity and support services (such as librarians and social workers).
Unlike the group of 10 plaintiffs who have never negotiated a district teacher’s contract, unions have been negotiating contracts for decades under the fair-share system: states with union negotiated teacher contracts have better NAEP test scores than those who don’t.
The plaintiffs in the case would also have us believe that they cannot be forced to pay for the work done on their behalf because they disagree with aspects of the teacher contract.
Again, just to be clear, no one is forced to pay for the overtly political activities (like lobbying and endorsements) that unions do. I don’t personally buy the argument (as justices Roberts and Scalia seemed to in oral arguments) that things like determining reimbursement for travel to conferences are political in the commonly accepted sense of the term (when’s the last time you went to a “change the mileage reimbursement” rally?). But even if you do, a simple measure of fairness dictates that you should still be willing to pay for what you get.
Let’s say you went to dinner with a group of friends. You have $20 in your pocket, but when the check comes you say you are not going to pay for your meal because you didn’t like the side dish that came with your meal. Do you have the right to make your friends pick up your tab?
The collective bargaining agreement bill will also be paid, but if you don’t pay your share it leaves the rest of us with two options—both of which which hurt our schools and students. Option 1: We keep supporting those who don’t pay either by chipping in extra to maintain the same level of representation or accept that we will not be as well-represented. Option 2: We stop representing some teachers, creating a two-tiered system of support.
In option 1, we are left with less resources to create fair and just bargaining systems. More teachers are dissatisfied by the bargaining process. We achieve worse outcomes for schools and students. Communities of adults that once worked well together are divided and frustrated, making the hard job of working with students even harder in the absence of teamwork and camaraderie.
In option 2, you could have some classes with teachers working under the bargaining agreement and others without them. Imagine as school where the 3rd grade class had 25 students, physical education every day, a teacher with time during her work day to write individualized education plans for students with disabilities. In this same school the fourth grade teacher might not get collective bargaining rights—working with 40 students in her class with no time for students to exercise or for her to write IEPs.
The plaintiffs in Friedrichs would have you believe they are working to end political speech in education, but the real impact of their success would be to ensure that politics move to have a more direct impact on schools’ and students’ day-to-day lives.
So, my fellow citizens and educators, I hope that you will consider changing your stance.
If you don’t, if you insist on undermining the current system of collective bargaining in our state, what are other structures will you put in place to ensure that a representative body of teachers can help direct resources for our students?
If you maintain your opposition to everyone paying their fair share, how will you maintain community and teamwork amongst staff so that we can continue our collective work on behalf of students?