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Commentary: Unfair treatment of non-union teachers

Tim Farmer is a Teach for America alumnus and current membership director for the Professional Association of Colorado Educators

Since leaving the classroom to help promote the non-union teacher movement, it has never ceased to amaze me that so many teachers are unaware of their choices, one being the Professional Association of Colorado Educators (PACE).

However, having worked in Florida and now Colorado, I am appalled at how inequitably teachers who want to exercise their right to join a non-union association are treated.

For starters, I was shocked to learn when I moved to Colorado that the unions in many districts are allowed to take advantage of teachers when they join by locking them into paying dues for the rest of their teaching career, unless a teacher cancels his or her membership during a ridiculously short (usually two-week) window in the fall. What is worse, unions don’t adequately disclose this provision when teachers sign up.

From a basic consumer standpoint, we would all be irate if service providers tried to lock us into a lifetime of payments with only a short annual window to cancel, especially without telling us. PACE is an organization that wants to respect teachers and their freedom to choose. So if a PACE member asks for a cancellation we always promptly grant the request.

I received the following email from a new PACE member in Denver Public Schools recently, which underscores the abuse these teachers receive from the union:

I am a member of your organization (PACE) and have been since November. After I signed up for membership with your organization, I called the Denver Classroom Teacher’s Association to cancel my membership. I was told that I missed the “revocation period” and would have to wait until November 2012 to revoke my membership. I had no idea that a revocation period even existed…I feel this is deceptive and after several conversations with DCTA, I haven’t gotten anywhere…It pains me when I see that every month they are taking $66.00 out of my paycheck to pay for things that I don’t support. Any help or advice you can offer me would be appreciated. Thank you.

Unfortunately all I could say was that lawmakers and district officials have stood on the sidelines and allowed the union to take advantage of her. It’s absurd; it is easier to get out of a cell phone contract than the teachers’ union.

Teachers choose not to be members of the union for a variety of reasons. For some it is the expensive dues, which despite the tough economic times are at an all-time high – topping $60 per month, $800 per year in a lot of school districts.

For others it is the political spending. As reported recently in the Denver Post, unions in Colorado spent $7.7 million on partisan politics in 2010; and in 2008 they spent $26 million – with over a third of that spending coming from the teachers unions. 2012 will be no different.

In most school districts the unions are allowed to utilize payroll deduction services for their members, making the collection of dues an easier process for everyone involved. Surely, as a professional association that provides important benefits like legal and liability insurance and professional support to teachers, PACE should be granted the same capabilities as the union. So I thought. As just one example, when I recently requested these services from JeffCo Schools I received the following reply from the district’s payroll manager:

We appreciate the support you provide to our employees. Jeffco Schools, like many school districts, is going through budget cuts, reducing the resources available to take on new programs/processes…We are not able to take on additional payroll deductions. I would encourage you to modify your enrollment form for Jeffco Schools employees to reflect payment directly to PACE from the employee registering for your program, rather than as a payroll deduction.

The reason given is that it is too expensive to allow PACE to use it. However, it isn’t too costly to allow the union? If it is such a large expense, and if the budget is that tight, at least be fair and disallow all organizations from using the services.

I followed up by offering to pay a fee for each member that used the service, to help minimize Jeffco’s economic concerns. My request was again denied.

Other states, like Florida and our neighbor Utah, have laws in place that make this type of inequity illegal. Non-union professional associations are guaranteed equal access to things like teacher mailboxes for distributing literature, exhibiting at teacher back-to-school fairs, and payroll deduction services.

These states recognize that non-union groups are growing, as a shrinking number of teachers are members of a union. The Center for Union Facts estimates that in Colorado only 46-65% of teachers are union members statewide; while PACE membership is climbing every year.

It is important that school districts not be permitted to give preferential treatment. All teachers deserve an equal opportunity to know their options and choose to join a union or a professional association.

Fortunately there is hope for Colorado’s teachers as potential legislation will soon be considered to right these wrongs. It is an opportunity for Colorado’s leaders to stand up for teachers and ensure they are provided their basic freedom to choose how, at what time of the year, and with which organization they want to spend their money.

As a former teacher and NEA member, I support teachers’ right to choose a union. However, I equally support their right to choose a non-union association, or nothing at all – at any time of the year. Teachers deserve a choice.

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