When the recession started in 2008 and the economy was tanking in California and across the country, I was serving as a board member on my local teacher’s union board. Facing a budget shortfall, the district determined that it had to lay off several teachers. Because of California’s union-negotiated school district rules, the most recent teachers to be hired are the first to be fired when layoffs are needed.
I knew these individuals well. I had been a personal mentor to three, and another had been a student teacher of mine.
These teachers were making a big difference in our school — the children and parents loved them, and they were well-liked among the faculty. But not only were they popular, they also worked hard to vastly improve our fourth grade state writing scores, which had been lagging for years.
I started talking to other teachers at my school and proposed that we try to save as many jobs as possible by taking a 2% to 3% pay cut. Many teachers agreed and wanted to support these outstanding new teachers.
A majority of our district’s students comes from lower-income families, and many of our students’ parents had been laid off or were forced to work reduced hours. A voluntary pay cut by the teachers would have shown solidarity with the community and would have kept class sizes smaller in a district where that really matters. A small, temporary pay cut seemed like a win-win solution for everyone.
When I brought this idea to our union board meeting, I was told, “The teachers will never go for that.”
I related that many teachers had already shown a lot of support for the idea, and I suggested the union take an anonymous poll to determine what teachers throughout the district desired. The union leadership refused to even consider the idea and would not agree to a survey.
As the representative of my colleagues, I continued to share their desire in union meetings and one-on-ones with officials, but I was met with resistance every time. Finally, a union official told me “Don’t worry Rebecca. The union will take care of those teachers. We’re offering them a seminar on how to apply for unemployment benefits.”
My jaw dropped.
I said, “You’re charging these teachers a thousand dollars per year and claiming to represent their best interests, and all you are going to give them is a seminar? They don’t want unemployment benefits, they want to teach.”
That’s when I realized that the union and I were fundamentally at odds, even about such bread and butter issues as salary and layoffs decided in collective bargaining agreements.
The experience brought home to me that there was simply no way the union would ever listen to me no matter how much I tried to speak for my colleagues. This was not the fault of the individuals involved — it was rather that the union stood for things that were fundamentally in opposition to the best interests of children and teachers.
That’s why I am one of nine California teachers suing to end compulsory union dues in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a case now before the Supreme Court.
We are asking the justices to strike down the laws in 23 states that require all public employees to pay dues to the union even if they aren’t members and even if they disagree completely with the collective bargaining agreements that purport to represent their interests.
I don’t want to fund an organization that forces administrators to fire promising new teachers at the expense of ineffective tenured ones. I don’t want to pay dues to an organization that ratchets up teacher and administrator pay and pension costs every year even if our community can’t afford the cost.
And I certainly don’t want to pay for unions to work on collective bargaining agreements that include provisions that hurt our schools and our students. Every one of those fine teachers laid off in my district that year wondered why the district didn’t appreciate their hard work. It wasn’t the district that ignored their efforts; it was their union that they were forced to support with compulsory dues.
Not everyone agrees with me, of course. That’s why teachers who agree with the union’s priorities should be free to join and support it. But those of us who dissent from the union should also be free to spend our money elsewhere.
Surely, everyone can agree that individuals should have the right to decide these matters for themselves.