Unions have lost workers' trust

June 25, 2013 11:06AM
The article below appeared in Tuesday’s Tennessean in celebration of National Employee Freedom Week, which seeks to educate workers across the nation about their rights when it comes to union membership. by Justin Owen & J.C. Bowman Apathy and loss of trust in government are on the increase. As every political scandal unfolds, whether on the left or the right, people become further detached from their government. This seems like a simple fact of modern political life these days. Unfortunately, unions have become part of this distrusted establishment, teaming up with government to protect their own interests through the force of law. In a far cry from labor’s heyday, dues-paying union members often see their union officials as more interested in protecting their own interests and six-figure paychecks than the interests or paychecks of their members. That is why the Beacon Center of Tennessee and Professional Educators of Tennessee are joining with moer than 50 other organizations nationwide to promote National Employee Freedom Week, June 23-29. Simply put, we want all Tennesseans to know what freedoms they have when it comes to joining, or not joining, the organization or union that best reflects their beliefs or views. Fortunately, “right-to-work” states like Tennessee do not force citizens to join unions to hold a job. The ability of citizens to choose whether to join a union has helped hold those unions accountable and keep them striving to serve their members’ best interests. But beyond right-to-work, there still are serious issues that need to be addressed. Union dues are the most obvious problem. In many unions, dues can cost more than $1,000 per year without any obvious purpose. In Tennessee, annual dues for the National Education Association and its respective state and local affiliates are about $600. These dues are high because of a policy called “unified dues,” which requires a teacher who wishes to belong to the local teachers union to also join the state and national organizations, even if those groups do not affect the individual’s job in the slightest. Unions also take unfortunate steps to keep their members from leaving. To trap members, some unions restrict opt-out windows to certain short periods of the year. Often, these “escape clauses” or brief windows are intentionally set at a time when people are not focused on their membership; e.g., the middle of summer or the hectic two weeks before school begins. The ultimate goal is to keep members from exercising their right to leave. Unions also frequently engage in political activity, even though many union members do not join for political purposes. Of the top 20 contributors to political campaigns, the Tennessee Education Association was second on that list in 2012, spending $262,500. The teachers union gave $234,000 to Democratic candidates and $20,500 to Republican candidates, as well as $8,000 to independent candidates. It’s highly unlikely all of the union members, with this lopsided spending breakdown, agree their dues money should be spent on candidates at all. A poll conducted by National Employee Freedom Week found that 28 percent of Tennessee union households (33 percent nationally) expressed interest in leaving their unions if they knew how. Unions simply aren’t earning their members’ trust. If we want to restore that trust, we have to continue to educate our state’s citizens about their right to choose membership in organizations or unions that reflect their views, while rejecting concepts like compulsory membership or mandated union dues, especially for political activity. After all, it’s their job — and it should also be their choice.

Justin Owen is president and CEO of the Beacon Center of Tennessee. JC Bowman is executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee and a former chief education policy analyst for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.