A mockery of fairness
I’m a history teacher. I enjoy it. I’m a taxpayer. I accept it. I recognize my responsibility as a citizen to pay my fair share to support the commonwealth. I elect representatives to determine how much I need to pay and how my taxes get spent to support the public good, and if I don’t approve of the taxing and spending decisions they make, I enjoy the right, like everybody else, to cast a vote to get them out next time.
On those terms I accept the government’s power to tax me, whether I like the particulars of the tax or how it’s being spent. I would have followed President Washington in 1794 when he rode out at the head of an army to enforce that power when farmers in Pennsylvania refused to comply with the law, regardless of whether I liked the whiskey tax myself.
I am also a member of the National Education Association. This I don’t enjoy and will likely no longer be able to accept. I joined many years ago. The principal was away that day, and when he received a message that a student was secretly taping classes and conversations, he asked me to collect her recording device. I explained the situation to the student, she gave me the device, and I told her she could retrieve it in the office at the end of the day. A few hours later the police showed up at my classroom door to investigate her mother’s charge that I’d “stolen” the recorder. While nothing further came of the incident, I reluctantly decided that day to join the NEA, there being virtually no other way to obtain professional liability insurance. I’ve been paying dues ever since.
Apparently my dues, and the dues of other teachers who voluntarily join the union, aren’t enough. The NEA nationally and here in Vermont has been lobbying since at least 1988 for an “agency fee,” or what it euphemistically calls a “fair share” law. This proposed act requires local school boards to deduct 85 percent of normal union dues from non-union teachers’ paychecks and turn that money over to the NEA.
The union’s proffered justification is that non-members benefit from the contract negotiated by the union, negotiations paid for by union members’ dues. That rationalization makes some initial sense. However, it fails to tell the whole story.
If you walk into a restaurant and choose to buy lunch, the owner has the right to charge you for lunch, and you would expect to pay for it. If you choose not to buy lunch, you’d rightly expect that you wouldn’t have to pay for it. That’s because you have a choice.
In the case of teacher contract negotiations, teachers don’t have a choice. I’m not allowed to negotiate my own contract because long ago the union lobbied for and won the statutory sole right to negotiate for me.
Having taken from me the right to negotiate my own contract, the union now wants to charge me for something I never wanted it to do. This is like having a customer decline to order a sandwich, allowing the proprietor to cram most of it down her throat, and then making her pay for 85 percent of it.
Do you like that picture?
If the NEA would allow each teacher the choice of either participating in the union’s negotiated contract and accepting union representation in disputes, or negotiating an individual contract with his local school board and representing himself, then I would fully defend the union’s right to charge participating teachers an agency fee. However, if you don’t allow me to decide whether I want you to act as my agent, you don’t have the right to force me to pay you a fee. Compelling me to pay that fee is indefensible.
Having obscured that essential unfairness, the NEA complains that union members’ dues currently “cover the costs” of bargaining and representation while non-members “reap the benefits.” In short, argues the union, my dues have been higher than they should have been because non-members haven’t been paying their “fair share.”
Does anyone seriously believe that once all these former non-members start paying this allegedly “fair share,” the NEA will be “fair” enough to reduce my membership dues since the union’s expenses will be divided among so many more teachers?
Does anyone not realize that compelling teachers to pay almost full dues for virtually nothing — no liability insurance, no legal representation — will lead many to conclude that they might as well join the union and at least get something for their money? This is a far from inadvertent by-product of the union’s lobbying for “fairness.”
In its press release to members, the NEA laments that my union “brothers and sisters” and I have carried this “unfair” burden too long.
I have a sister, thank you. And if I have professional brothers and sisters, they are my fellow teachers, not my fellow union members. And as I would not reach into my sister’s pocket to steal from her, I would not steal from other teachers, who for whatever reason choose not to belong to an organization so reprobate and without conscience that it would stoop to picking working teachers’ pockets against their will.
I recognize the Legislature’s right to take my money through taxes and apply it for the public good. But this is not a tax, and this act serves no public good. It does not serve the people or any portion of the people. It simply takes certain private citizens’ money and puts it directly into the coffers of a private organization to benefit that private organization. If there is an agency at work here, it would be the Vermont Legislature operating as an agent of the National Education Association.
I cannot believe that is the deliberate intention of my state’s elected representatives, yet that would be the result of their actions if they enact this statute.
I hope my representatives, charged with doing the people’s business, will withhold their hands from something so unconscionable.
Peter Berger teaches English at Weathersfield School. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.