Paying Our Dues to Save Public Education

Public-sector unions as we know them in the United States are about to disappear. When Supreme Court Justice Scalia died with a Democrat president in office, union leaders everywhere quietly celebrated because it meant public sector unions would survive. The Supreme Court was scheduled to hear the Friedrichs case and with Scalia’s majority vote, we were destined to lose fair share fees.   Unfortunately, Obama never got an appointment to the Supreme Court and then Trump won the election so we are right back to where we started when Scalia was on the Court. While it won’t be the Friedrichs case hitting the Supreme Court, there are other cases already in the pipeline waiting to be heard by a conservative court. This has been a long-game strategy very successfully implemented by the right, and public-sector unions are about to lose.

Fair share fees are what guarantee union survival; these fees have been under a concerted attack from the far right for years, and states such as Wisconsin have lost the battle. But why is fair share so important?  By law, unions are required to bargain on behalf of both union members and non-members alike.  So, if a worker within a bargaining unit decides not to join the union, they can be a free-loader and still get all the same wages, benefits, and workplace protections they would if they paid union dues.

You may have noticed the last few years CTA and SDEA have been following up with “fee payer” members to talk with them about signing up for full union membership. Many of the fee payers did not realize that they were not full union members because they saw a fee being deducted from their paychecks. Soon, unions will not be allowed to collect fair share fees from all members. Members can decide whether or not to pay, and privatizers are absolutely hoping that people will be dissatisfied enough with their unions to choose to pay nothing. Why pay union dues when you can still reap all the benefits? This is how the unions in Wisconsin have been decimated. And as a result of the decimation of these unions, Wisconsin’s public education has been gutted.

Whether you like it or not, public sector unions are the only true guardians of the public services available to ALL people in our country.  The strategic lawsuits being filed are funded by the people (i.e. corporate interests) who stand to cash in once unions go. The goal is to convert truly public education into for-profit education. The people behind these lawsuits aren’t doing union members any “free speech” favors.  They are creating the conditions whereby every single one of us will be at-will employees working for substandard wages and benefits — just like private school and charter teachers already do.  Again, see Wisconsin.

I got involved with our union in the spring of 2012 because I was absolutely pissed off at what our union was doing. I have picketed outside our union.  I have filed recall paperwork against the president and other SDEA board members. I have campaigned against SDEA leadership.  I have written articles and spoken out criticizing the decisions and actions of our union leadership. Yet during these past five years, I have talked many people out of dropping their membership and becoming a fee payer. Some of these people later became executive board members or were appointed to important committees such as the bargaining team. Already I’m hearing from some people that as soon as we lose fair share fees they plan to drop their union membership as a protest against the current leadership that mostly ignores and marginalizes members who disagree with them. I cannot emphasize enough how detrimental and shortsighted dropping union membership will be.

I’ve repeatedly had the same conversation with both progressive and conservative union members who are beyond fed up with the decisions of union leadership.  Progressives and the right are both pissed about neo-liberal policies (although for VERY different reasons!) and many think that losing fair share fees will be good for unions in the long run.  The hope is that if our union burns to the ground that it will be forced to rebuild as a more effective and responsive organization.  I entertained this theory for a while until I factored in how all union organizing will be perpetually under attack by corporate privatizers who currently have both political parties in their pockets.  And I finally realized that there will be no phoenix rising from the ashes if our union goes up in flames.  If your house is falling into disrepair, you don’t torch it for the insurance money.  You fix it.

And that’s what I try to do.  Sometimes I feel like I’m beating my head against the wall and I take a break.  But I pay my dues, literally and metaphorically, and keep showing up because I know that together we are stronger and that there’s not a chance in hell that public education will get one iota better if educators aren’t willing to pay their dues.

Shane Parmely, Teacher, Bell Middle School

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