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Knowing rights empowers workers

| Wednesday, June 26, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Rob Brough and John Cress, two Pennsylvania public school teachers, had grown concerned over the politicization of their teachers union and wanted to quit. They just didn't know how hard it would be.

In Pennsylvania, leaving the union gets complicated for teachers and other government workers. Brough's and Cress' union denied their resignations, citing what's called a “maintenance of membership” clause written into most school district and other government worker contracts.

The unfair provision means union members generally can leave their union only during a narrow two-week window at the end of the three- or four-year union contract. So Brough and Cress had to submit their resignation by Oct. 1 or they were required to stay in the union for another full year.

The men are frustrated. Brough explained his opposition to his union: “Their agenda and political ideals are counter to what I believe and it is a kick in the teeth every time my dues are withdrawn from my hard-earned paycheck and handed off to some organization that I would never contribute to of my own free will.”

The teachers' case demonstrates how important it is to inform union members about how and when they can leave their unions. Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank based in Harrisburg, has been doing just that through Free to Teach, a project designed to empower public educators. Free to Teach is how Brough and Cress learned of their rights. Now a 30-state effort will do the same through National Employee Freedom Week, which runs through Saturday.

State by state, the information campaign will tell union members of their options, whether that is remaining a member, resigning, or leaving and becoming a religious or other conscientious objector. Once they understood their options, Brough and Cress decided to become fee payers.

In Pennsylvania, a fee payer can be forced to pay money (a fee) to his government workplace union to keep his job. By law, fair share fees must cover only contract negotiations and worker representation. Unions cannot use money from these fees for political or ideological causes, as they do with members' dues.

A full-time teacher currently pays $489 to the Pennsylvania State Education Association and $180 to the National Education Association — $669 in total dues. If that same teacher became a fee payer, he would pay only $431 a year. In other words, as much as 35 percent of a teacher's union dues fund political or ideological causes and issues unrelated to representing workers.

Knowing the options about union membership empowers workers. Armed with information, Brough and Cress are now fighting to have their union resignations accepted so they can immediately become fee payers and stop paying for union politics. And there's no shortage of people interested in taking this path: According to a poll conducted by National Employee Freedom Week, 33 percent of union households nationally would opt out of union membership, along with 27.6 percent of Pennsylvania's union households.

Pennsylvania has a long way to go to fully protect workers' individual liberties. Still, learning about their options has given the teachers courage to act. Ultimately, National Employee Freedom Week is about empowering workers to exercise their rights. But they can't do so if they don't know what those rights are.

Priya Abraham is a senior policy analyst at the Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg.

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