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Chicago Teachers Union strike Reuters/John Gress Chicago Teachers Union strike Reuters/John Gress  

Activists Push For Employees To Dump Unions

Unwilling employees shouldn’t feel shackled to their unions, argues a coalition of groups attempting to increase awareness for alternatives to union membership.

“National Employee Freedom Week” is taking place this week and hopes to strategically use public speakers and the media to inform employees currently unwillingly paying unions dues of what rights they have to quit their unions or at least reduce the amount they pay in dues.

Eighty-one different organizations in 45 states are taking part in the effort, led by the Nevada Policy Research Institute and the Association of American Educators (AAE), a professional organization for teachers that bills itself as a group that teachers can join instead of their local union.

Only 11.3 percent of U.S. workers are members of labor unions, a figure that has been in decline for decades, but activists says that with higher awareness the number would be even lower.

In an event at The Heritage Foundation on Tuesday, several activists associated with the campaign shared their stories of grappling with uncooperative unions in their efforts to avoid involuntarily being members.

Victor Joecks, the executive director of the campaign, said that while working in Nevada he had been stunned by the number of discontented public union members he had encountered who were unaware of their right to abandon their union, despite Nevada being a right-to-work state.

“Teachers [said] ‘I’ve been a teacher for years, but I never knew I could leave my union until you told me,’” Joecks said. One teacher was a building representative for his union for years, Joeks said, and never knew that he had the option to opt out of union membership. That experience, he said, drove the creation of a national campaign to raise awareness.

Another of Tuesday’s speakers, Rebecca Friedrichs, is currently known for being the named plaintiff in a major lawsuit, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which seeks to abolish California’s law compelling teachers in the state to pay dues to the California Teachers Association (CTA).

California law allows teachers to obtain a rebate on the portion of their dues earmarked for political activities, but Friedrichs said her lawsuit was partly motivated by repeated negative interactions with the CTA, which she said obscured the existence of this rebate so effectively that she paid excess dues for years before realizing that it existed.

“I never met one [union representative] that knows how to help you opt out,” she said, a shortcoming she attributed to highly effective suppression at the upper levels of the CTA.

Robert Wiersema III, a Michigan teacher, recounted his own struggles to leave Michigan’s teachers union. Even after the passage of a right to work law, he said, he had difficulties due to a provision, never openly stated, that he was only allowed to leave the union during a designated “opt-out” period lasting two weeks in August. While he successfully left, it was a complicated enough matter that he found himself contacted by other teachers who wanted to know how to imitate him.

“Nobody was aware of it. My local president was not aware of it,” Wiersema said.

Jennifer Parrish said activism was necessary because sometimes union representatives engage in outright dishonesty. Parrish, a home childcare provider, is the lead plaintiff in a Minnesota lawsuit seeking to halt the forced unionization of childcare workers in the state. She said that unions have attempted to halt opt-outs.

“I can’t tell you the number of providers we’ve spoken to who have tried to opt out and been told ‘Oh, that Harris v. Quinn, it doesn’t apply to you,’” Parrish said.

Joecks said that Wiersama and Parrish’s experiences both reflected common tactics used to keep unwilling members locked in. Another source of difficulty, the speakers agreed, was that workers fear losing union benefits such as liability insurance that they said could actually be obtained from other sources. One goal of the week’s campaign, they said, was to boost awareness that organizations such as AAE could offer similar benefits, often at a lower cost.

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