The nine teachers who are suing their union in Friedrichs v. CTA are doing so because they believe that many union stances taken in collective bargaining are bad for public schoolteachers and bad for the children they teach. They are asking the Court to rule that as individuals they have a right to choose whether or not they join a union. As it stands, California and twenty-two other states require them to pay agency fees to support union collective bargaining. The unions claim that these agency fees are necessary because in collective bargaining the union speaks on behalf of all teachers. This week in the Wall Street Journal, Harlan Elrich, one of the nine plaintiffs in Friedrichs, explains why that is not the case.
Harlan has been a school teacher for thirty years, with most of that time spent in California public schools. Both of his parents were educators, and he is related to eight more. However, growing up he never thought he would choose teaching as a career. It all started when he began tutoring part-time in college and realized he enjoyed teaching. Ever since then, as he explains, “Sunday nights are joyous because I know I’ll be going to work in my classroom, with my students, on Monday morning.”
Harlan was a member of his local union for many years, even serving as a union representative. But he noticed that the union never played an important role in the day-to-day life of many teachers. When teachers needed help in the classroom or wanted lessons to improve their skills, they found the union didn’t offer that kind of help. The turning point for Harlan came when he received a union survey asking teachers about political issues in an upcoming election. As he filled out the survey, Harlan realized he came down against the union on nearly every position they took. His union dues, nearly $1,000 every year, were supporting politics he did not agree with.
Harlan left his union, but under California law he still had to pay agency fees to support union collective bargaining. In collective bargaining, the union claims to speak for all teachers, but Harlan saw that collective bargaining was actually the cause of many problems in the classroom. Teachers in his school district were well-paid compared to many in their community, but the unions still pushed for higher wages. Those higher wages meant some teachers had to be laid off and that class sizes had to increase. And because of the union-backed seniority policies, many bad teachers could bide their time till retirement, while younger but better teachers were the first to be laid off. Recounting one situation in particular, Harlan points out that the “Students were relying on this teacher for an education, and he did not deliver. Yet he could do exactly as he pleased because the union had negotiated protections based on seniority.”
Friedrichs v. CTA is about giving teachers like Harlan the right to choose which policies and organizations they want to support. The union cannot claim to speak for everyone. As Harlan put it, “That the union would presume to push, allegedly on my behalf, for higher salaries at the expense of smaller class sizes and avoiding teacher layoffs is preposterous… I’m not against the union; I’m against the state forcing me to pay union fees against my will”
Read Harlan’s full op-ed here.