When you join an organization, whether it’s the Rotary Club or your local gym, you decide how long you want to be a member, and leave when you wish.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case for many employees throughout America. For them, being a labor union member feels much like checking out of the Hotel California: You can never really leave.
In Pennsylvania, for example, leaving the union gets complicated for teachers and other government workers. Take the case of Rob Brough and John Cress, two public school teachers who resigned from their teachers’ union—a National Education Association affiliate—after several years of wanting to quit.
As soon as the teachers quit, their union rejected their resignations. The union cited what’s called a “maintenance of membership” clause written into most school district and other government worker contracts. This provision means union members may generally only leave their union during a narrow two-week window at the end of their three or four-year union contract.
Teachers Brough and Cress are not alone in wanting to leave their union, but have discovered they don’t know all the rules for doing so. That’s why over 50 non-profits across the country have launched National Employee Freedom Week, a national campaign which runs June 23-29 focusing on educating employees about all of their rights in the workplace.
The Commonwealth Foundation, where I am a senior policy analyst, is a free-market think tank based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania that has been helping teachers like Brough and Cress through Free to Teach, a project designed to empower public educators.
Our organized joined National Employee Freedom Week campaign because we know the issue of worker freedom needs national attention.
According to a poll conducted by the campaign’s organizers, fully one-third of union households across America want to opt out of union membership.
In our state, the number of union households who would opt out clocked in at 27.6 percent, while states like Illinois and Michigan saw 30 percent and 28 percent, respectively.
State by state, National Employee Freedom Week will tell union members of their options, whether that is remaining a member, resigning, or leaving and becoming a religious or other conscientious objector.
We know union members are hungry for such information.
In Nevada’s Clark County School District—one of the country’s largest—a similar campaign saw an astonishing 400 teachers resign from their local union last summer.
The Pennsylvania teachers’ case demonstrates how important it is to inform union members about how and when they can leave their unions. Because Brough and Cress missed their annual deadline to resign from their union, they were trapped and required to pay union dues for another school year—even though they opposed the political causes the union was supporting with their dues.
Thankfully, employees have the freedom not to pay for their unions’ politics. Brough and Cress, for example, work in a school district that charges “fair share fees” to non-union teachers. By law, fair share fees must cover only contract negotiations and worker representation.
Unions cannot use money from these fees for political or ideological causes, as they do with members’ dues. As such, both teachers wanted to become fee payers and ensure their paychecks weren’t supporting causes with which they disagreed.
The Pennsylvania State Education Association, for example—the state’s largest government union—represents 187,000 educators. A full-time teacher currently pays $489 to the PSEA and $180 to the National Education Association (NEA), $669 in total dues. If that same teacher became a fee payer, however, he would pay only $431 a year—a 35 percent decrease.
Knowing the options about union membership empowers workers, as it did with Brough and Cress. But most states have a long way to go to fully protect workers’ individual liberties, and many union members—both in Pennsylvania and nationally—don’t know what rights they have.
National Employee Freedom Week is about informing workers about their rights and empowering them to exercise their freedoms. Ultimately, there are ways for workers to leave the Hotel California. We just need to give them the right keys.
Priya Abraham is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.