How Do the Big Teacher’s Unions Get Away With It?

by | Sep 6, 2011

How Do the Big Teacher’s Unions Get Away With It?

How Do the Big Teacher’s Unions Get Away With Such High Dues?

As a California public school student through high school, son of a public school employee, and a  long time coach at a public school for fifteen years, I have seen how hard the majority of teachers work, despite the obstacles they are forced to deal with on a daily basis. As a labor attorney, I am shocked at that these same dedicated and intelligent teachers have tolerated and continue to tolerate being represented by a union that takes from them much more than what it gives them. 

Over the past couple of years, and especially since last March when I have taken a more active role in helping to represent the Horizon Certificated Employees Association (HCEA), a public charter school teachers association, I have started looking into what the traditional, “big” teachers unions offer their members, and at what price.

The standard union dues for a full time teacher in California is about $650/year for the state association and another $175 for the national association. The local association keeps another $100-$300. The part-time dues are lower proportionally. That comes out to over $100 per month since most teachers are paid on a ten month contract.

What do these teachers get for these high dues? Surely they must get an attorney to represent them if they are being investigated for discipline or have a professional labor negotiator working for them to negotiate their contract or handle workplace grievances and problems? No. For the most part, teachers use a system of stewards (fellow teachers) to “represent” other teachers as they go through the disciplinary process. When it comes to bargaining, teachers typically have a negotiations team that spends hours undergoing training from the state association to negotiate for themselves. To be fair, the state associations do provide some level of professional support, but far less than the huge dues would suggest.

For comparison, Goyette & Associates represents a large number of police, fire and general employee public employee associations. Each of these associations’ members gets professional representation at the earliest stages of discipline and we are actively working with each group on their contract issues and negotiations. Even the public safety unit with the highest rate of usage pays only 60-70% of what teachers pay in union dues.

Surely, the political arm of the state and national teacher associations must justify the huge dues? Die-hard members may make this argument, but the reality is that only a small portion of union dues actually get to political campaigns. Most dues goes to the huge administrative overhead of these massive organizations. Certainly, California teachers’ unions have a big voice in state politics, but that does not clinch the argument that teachers ought to pay such high fees for that voice. In the alternative framework below, a local teachers association can use the money currently earmarked for the state and national groups and use most of it for local politics, or send it to the big unions for politics – but by choice.

There is another way of doing this.

A local California teachers association with 800 members currently brings in about $800,000 in dues. Of that, almost $700,000 goes to their state and national associations. The other $100,000 is used by the local association to cover meeting expense, a small local office and maybe staff, and other costs. Usually, one of the biggest “discretional” expenses is travel and registration fee expenses to attend conferences and trainings put on by the state and federal associations.

What’s the alternative? Decertification…”fire” the big union.

What if instead of the budget picture painted above, the local association could keep that $700,000 in dues each year? The local association would still keep its rights to collectively bargain a contract with the school district, but it would have the freedom to decide how much and to whom ALL of its membership dues were spent.

An “independent” teachers association with these 800 teachers could take the $700,000 and do a lot of things…this is just one possibility: 1) Use $240,000 and hire a law firm to provide the teacher members with professional representation at every step of the disciplinary process and to hire a professional labor negotiator; 2) Return $200,000 to the members ($200/year); 3) Set aside the other $260,000 for a combination of public relations, local politics and state/national politics. For the politics/PR piece, think about the impact this teachers association would have in a local school board election (the group that approves their contract) if they spent even a portion of that $260,000 on a local election. Also, if the membership felt strongly about the political actions of the state and/or national associations that they formerly belonged to, they could simply send them a check for whatever amount they wanted to support their activities – I doubt that the money would not be accepted.

But Decertification has to be nearly impossible to accomplish? Not true. The process is actually simple and straightforward, though there are some critical timelines that must be met and each step has to be properly taken. The reality is that there are decertifications taking place throughout California of big unions in all layers of public services. The biggest obstacle to teacher taking charge of their labor organizations and dues is their ignorance of the alternatives to the status quo.

Papers used by a Sacramento Wage Claim Lawyer

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