(The Center Square) – A bill rapidly making its way through the Indiana legislature would allow teachers to withdraw from the teachers union at any time during the school year and not be on the hook for dues for the rest of the year, as they are now.
The bill, SB 251, passed the full Senate on Feb. 18 and is due for a vote in the House of Representatives in the coming weeks. It is expected to pass, given the Republican supermajority.
Since 1984, Indiana teachers have been able to choose whether or not they want to join the union. But it often doesn’t seem that way, according to a longtime teacher from Merrillville, in the northwest part of the state.
“When a teacher joins a school system…on the first day of orientation, they’re approached by their union representative and told to sign a piece of paper,” says Sharon Row, now executive director of an organization called Indiana Professional Educators, Inc. “and that is held up as a contract. So then the dues are automatically payroll-deduced. And in almost all cases, teachers have no idea how much is being payroll-deducted.”
She says some teachers, when they see that the union takes positions they may not agree with, want to withdraw, but can’t. At least not easily, because the window of time to withdraw is limited, sometimes to only a few days a year, and teachers often have a hard time learning when it is.
“Trying to find out what that window is next to impossible unless you know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who is close to a (ISTA) rep who will tell you what that window is,” says Row. “In Merrillville, which is where I taught, if you want to withdraw from the union, you have to give notice, but it doesn’t take effect until September first the next year, so you’re going to continue to pay dues until September first the next year.”
Union membership includes three levels: the local union, the Indiana State Teachers Association (ISTA), and the National Education Association.
A teacher who signs agreeing to be a member of the union gets membership in all three. Dues are $800-$1,000 a year, depending on the school corporation, and are automatically deducted from employee paychecks every two weeks.
SB 251, authored by Sen. Phil Boots, R- Crawfordsville, says: “A school employee has the right to resign from, and end any financial obligation to, a school employee organization at any time.”
It also says the form that a new teacher signs, authorizing union dues to be deducted, shall be “prescribed by the attorney general” and shall include, in 14-point bold font, the words: “I am aware that I have a First Amendment right, as recognized by the United States Supreme Court, to refrain from joining and paying dues to a union (school employee organization). I further realize that membership and payment of dues are voluntary and that I may not be discriminated against for any refusal to join or financially support a union. I authorize my employer to deduct union dues from my salary in the amounts specified in accordance with my union’s bylaws. I understand that I may revoke this authorization at any time.”
Another change made in the law is that every teacher must be given this form to sign anew every year, so that they are giving informed consent every year to have union dues deducted from their paychecks.
ISTA has tagged SB 251 as one of a handful of education bills in the Republican-dominated Indiana General Assembly this year that it says are aimed at weakening the union.
“Special interests don't like teachers having a statewide voice through ISTA,” the union said in a recent Facebook post. “SB 251 will make it more difficult to join and maintain membership with ISTA and our local associations, all while creating more work for local schools.”
An ISTA representative, John O'Neal, testified in opposition to the bill in January, saying it “singles out public school teachers….for a new and highly bureaucratic process…”
In introducing the bill, Boots said it was needed to comply with the 2017 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME, in which an Illinois state employee objected to being forced to pay 78% of the full amount of union dues when he had opted out of joining the union. The law had allowed unions to extract “agency fees” from non-union employees.
The court found in Janus’ favor, saying taking union dues from nonconsenting public employees violates the First Amendment.
“The idea of public-sector unionization and agency fees would astound those who framed and ratified the Bill of Rights,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the court. “Thus, the union cannot point to any accepted founding-era practice that even remotely resembles the compulsory assessment of agency fees from public-sector employees. We do know, however, that prominent members of the founding generation condemned laws requiring public employees to affirm or support beliefs with which they disagreed. As noted, Jefferson denounced compelled support for such beliefs as ‘sinful and tyrannical,’ and others expressed similar views.”
The opinion, which was quoted in written testimony before the Senate Committee on Pensions and Labor by the group Americans for Prosperity, went on to refer to affirmative consent.
“Neither an agency fee nor any other payment to the union may be deducted from a nonmember’s wages, nor may any other attempt be made to collect such a payment, unless the employee affirmatively consents to pay,” the court said in its opinion. “By agreeing to pay, nonmembers are waiving their First Amendment rights, and such a waiver cannot be presumed.”
Row says the bill is “significant” in that affirms the individual rights of Indiana teachers.
“The unions kind of coerce you to joining them, and if you don’t, they literally harass you until you do,” she said, relating an experience she had as a teacher in Merrillville where teachers who hadn’t joined the union were ordered to report to the teacher’s lounge, where the school’s union representative was there waiting for them.
“We were berated and belittled and we were told that they’re doing all this for us and we ought to thank them and we need to join them and it was a complete harassment period. Two of the teachers walked out of the meeting…it was totally unprofessional, it was totally unethical.”
She says a third of school corporations in the state won’t allow non-union teachers to serve on committees, including committees formed to review and adopt a new curriculum.
SB 251, she says, would prevent this, by explicitly prohibiting such discrimination.