Teachers in the Dark

Majority of teachers don’t know about union opt-out rights

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June 24, 2019

A majority of teachers are unaware of their newly won right to opt out of union dues, according to a new poll.

In June 2018, the Supreme Court declared that government agencies could no longer mandate union dues or fee payments as a condition of employment in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. Despite the landmark ruling, a majority of American teachers remain ignorant of their ability to decline such payments and are also confused about the consequences of withdrawing from the union. A YouGov poll of 1,000 educators found 77 percent had not heard of the landmark case and 52 percent were unaware that they could continue to work without paying dues or fees.

The poll results reflected the reality on the ground, according to several teachers affiliated with the education reform group Teacher Freedom Project, which commissioned the poll. Greg Kuehn, a special-needs teacher at Minnesota's Park Rapids Area School District, said in a release that many of his colleagues are not knowledgeable about their legal rights.

"The vast majority of teachers at my school have no idea that there is another choice when it comes to union membership," Kuehn said in a statement. "They are shocked and in disbelief that it’s true and they are still unsure and afraid. I think it's going to take a long time before all teachers know about Janus and feel comfortable making a choice."

The poll found that nearly half of teachers were concerned about losing tenure, seniority, or other benefits if they opt out of the union—only 17 percent of those polled were able to correctly identify how resigning from a union would affect their daily teaching lives. It also found that 22 percent of teachers had reconsidered their union status in the past year; 3 percent of respondents had joined a union since the Janus case while only 1 percent reported leaving. Elementary school science teacher Daniel Elo from North St. Paul said his coworkers are more focused on teaching than their own rights.

"I'm not surprised to see many teachers have misconceptions when it comes to knowing their rights. My coworkers want to focus on their students, not their own rights," he said in the release. "That said, our profession is stronger when we have informed teachers who will advocate for what they believe with their influence and dollars."

Despite united opposition to the Janus decision from organized labor, the majority of teachers approve of the decision. Only 17 percent said that union membership should be mandatory compared with 74 percent saying such associations should be voluntary; 84 percent agreed they should be able to resign at any time. Respondents had split results about the process of resigning union membership with 30 percent agreeing that it was easy to quit and 28 percent saying it would be difficult.

Colin Sharkey, executive director of the Association of American Educators, a union alternative and supporter of the Teacher Freedom Project, said he expects union membership levels to be affected as teachers become more aware of the reality of the Janus decision.

"Union leaders may claim their members have opted to renew after the Janus decision, but that is very misleading," Sharkey said in a statement. "In truth most teachers still do not know their rights and aren’t aware they can reconsider their union membership. Even if they do, it is still too difficult to exercise those rights and far too many teachers are misinformed about what happens after they leave the union."

The fallout from Janus continues to play out in the American legal system. Several states and major labor unions are facing class-action suits from employees seeking to recover back dues and fees that they say were taken from paychecks. Other unions have been sued for hindering workers from resigning their membership and recovering their full wages.