Agency fees and teachers’ unions

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(Host) According to commentator John McClaughry, a long standing unionization issue is about to undergo fresh debate.

(McClaughry) The Vermont NEA, the state’s 11,000 member teacher and support staff union, has distributed its election year questionnaire to candidates for the legislature. The union’s number one issue is one that has come and gone for sixteen years: the agency fee.

Under long standing labor law, a union may organize a workplace by winning a representation election of the members of the bargaining unit – for example, all the teachers. Once the union is certified, the employer – the school board – is obligated to bargain with the union for a teacher employment contract. When approved by the union and the board, the union is obligated to represent every person in the bargaining group, whether or not that person chose to join the union and pay dues.

The union wants to charge these “free riders”, who get benefits but contribute nothing toward meeting the expenses, an “agency fee”, deducted from their paychecks.

In 1988 the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that state law did not allow the enforcement of agency fee provisions. An effort by the VT NEA to get the required statutory change fizzled out in 1990. Now the union plans to make another run at it.

In the context of current exclusionary bargaining laws, the union has a fair point. One obvious solution would be to allow dissenting teachers to exit the bargaining group, but that would probably mean the eventual end of the union. The remaining choice is to charge all non-union teachers the agency fee, somewhat less than full union dues.

The key question is “how much less?” In the union’s view, agency fees should be very close to union dues. If they are, most teachers will pay a bit more and get the full benefits of union membership. If the fee is only, say, half of union dues, many teachers will drop out of the union. Then they can still benefit from the union’s bargaining for higher wages and benefits, workplace improvements, and representation in grievance hearings, at half the cost.

The union thus loads as many union expenditures as possible into the “benefit” category. In one 1997 Pennsylvania court case, it turned out that only 25 percent of union dues were actually used for bargaining and representation. Frequently a large fraction of union dues is swallowed up by lobbying, political action, conventions, supporting strikes, organizing, and litigation.

Given the current exclusionary bargaining law, a reasonable solution to the “free rider” problem might be this: a full independent audit and disclosure to members and the public of the uses of union dues, coupled with an agency fee sufficient to cover only the independently determined bargaining and representation expenses.

Will the Vermont NEA agree to that reasonable solution? Probably not, but it will be an interesting issue to watch.

This is John McClaughry – thanks for listening.

John McClaughry is president of the Ethan Allan Institute, a Vermont policy, research and education organization. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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