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Teachers Labor for Choices Beyond the Union
posted by: Cindy Omlin | February 23, 2015, 10:48 PM   

NWPE Director Cindy Omlin pens the column "Teachers Labor for Choices Beyond the Union" published in Idaho Education News:  

cindy omlin headshot oct 2014Legislators are gearing up to consider labor union bills dealing with length of teacher contracts and requiring that school districts consider multiple factors when forced to reduce staff, not just seniority. The members of Northwest Professional Educators, a nonpartisan, nonunion educators association, support these measures by large majorities based on our member survey on education issues.

The Legislature has done some fine work in recent years to get the schools less beholden to labor union demands and more accountable to their local communities. But it could do so much more, and it should.

Idaho is blessed to have a right to work law that insures that teachers cannot be forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment (as they are in 26 other states). But Idaho also inflicts “exclusive” bargaining on its teachers. This means that if a majority of teachers indicate in a representation election that they want a union to represent them in collective bargaining, all the teachers in that district have to submit to whatever the union bargains — even if they don’t want its representation or find that it bargains against their best interests.

One might argue the fairness of this or not, namely, are nonunion teachers free riders or forced passengers, but at the minimum, teachers should not be forced into a monopoly union that hasn’t legitimately earned the right to represent all the teachers.

To its credit, the Legislature has required the union to annually show that it has a majority of support among the teachers to retain its exclusive bargaining privilege. However, the Legislature did not concomitantly legislate any safeguards to insure fair and free representation elections.

Eighty two percent of NWPE members responding to our member survey do not support giving one union the right to negotiate for all if they simply gain a majority. One of the reasons for this is that they do not trust the election procedures. Most of these union elections are inappropriately conducted by the union itself with no objective oversight. Because of this, 90 percent of our member respondents believe that the state should require that union representation elections include a secret ballot that allows for multiple association options and election oversight by a mutually agreed upon independent third party.

Without fair procedures in place, the union can use fraudulent means to gain power over teachers’ livelihoods.   One survey respondent shared her experience, “When the union is below 50 percent, it provides free memberships to teachers, tells teachers that the school board will not negotiate with another group, and tells teachers that they will lose their insurance if the union does not have 50 percent.” Of course, this is false. The school board will negotiate with whatever group gains the majority, not just an Idaho Education Association (IEA) affiliate. Additionally, insurance benefits are not dependent on which organization bargains for the teachers.

Teachers want choices. This is evident from the continuing decline of IEA membership. The organization is running at a deficit and to stay in the black it will have to raise its already expensive dues or make cuts to its staff of 38.

One option many teachers would choose is to belong to their local bargaining association without being forced to fund the IEA and NEA’s politics, priorities, and agendas. In fact, they can, but they don’t know it. They can form a “local only” bargaining association and access negotiations resources much less costly than IEA/NEA affiliation. This model offers an alternative that is focused on local issues, is less expensive, and more reflective of local community values.

Frankly, many teachers are finding the current union system, which is nearly half a century old, to be archaic. Prospective teachers raised in an era of unprecedented individual rights go through school never learning what union representation means and then when hired, they are thrust into a highly unionized collective culture that assaults their diverse sensibilities, beliefs and needs. The system is counterproductive to the ideals of freedom of association, freedom of speech, and freedom of thought.

Nearly 60 percent of NWPE member respondents would prefer to personally negotiate a salary and benefits package that best suits their lifestyles. These teachers would prefer to have a menu of benefit options to choose from rather than being forced to take a contract package that is not in their best interest. For example, an unmarried teacher might prefer having a higher salary than a large pool of sick-days.

Teachers deserve choices and honest representation focused on their best interests. They want more modern approaches to representation and advocacy that aren’t tied to a partisan agenda. We encourage the legislature to consider additional laws that will expand choice for Idaho teachers. 

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