The worst union in America is contemplating its worst nightmare—a time when state law no longer compels California’s teachers to pay it for the privilege of working at a public school. According to a 23-page PowerPoint presentation unearthed by union watchdog Mike Antonucci, California Teachers Association officials are taking seriously the idea that a raft of pending litigation could put an end to mandatory union dues in the Golden State, and they’re exhorting local union leaders to rise to the challenge. The presentation’s title is fitting: “Not if, but when: Living in a world without Fair Share.”
“Fair share” in this context refers to the union’s current legal right to collect dues from every public school teacher in the state, whether they join the union or don’t. But a world without compulsory dues isn’t hard to imagine—it’s already the reality in 24 right-to-work states, including Florida, Indiana, and Michigan, home to the still-powerful Michigan Education Association. The CTA presentation offers a candid assessment of emerging legal “attacks” in the wake of Harris v. Quinn, in which the Supreme Court this year ruled that the First Amendment forbids the state of Illinois to force part-time home health-care workers to pay collective-bargaining fees. The high court is likely to take up Friedrichs v. CTA, a much wider-ranging lawsuit now pending before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals alleging that compulsory dues to public-employee unions are flatly unconstitutional.
After beginning with some basic demographics and shifting into a brief history of “fair share,” the CTA PowerPoint plows through a chronology of failed state ballot initiatives aimed at curbing the union’s unbridled power through “paycheck protection”—including Proposition 226 in 1998, Proposition 75 in 2005, and Proposition 32 in 2012. The union crushed all three measures simply by outspending their proponents. For example, the CTA poured $32 million into the $44 million campaign against Prop. 75, which would have required public-employee unions to get annual written consent from each member to use part of their dues for political activity. The “yes” campaign, by contrast, spent just $5.8 million. Given that disparity (and the unions’ fear-mongering about the policy issues involved), it’s easy to understand why the measure went down on Election Day. The CTA worries, with reason, that an adverse ruling from the Supreme Court would force the union to rein in its political largess.
The CTA is evidently resigned to the inevitability of losing the state’s protection. The last part of the union’s PowerPoint outlines an action plan suggesting different techniques to attract new members. The union contemplates ways to build its infrastructure by appealing to “young, prospective members to learn what might incent [sic] them to want to join the Association voluntarily.” The union suggests assessing would-be members’ level of interest in possible benefits, and looking for messages that “resonate with this demographic.” This sounds more like the AARP—or any interest group that relies on voluntary membership dues—than the old forced-dues model that California’s public-employee unions have relied on for so long. In the new scenario, if an educator thinks the union has something beneficial to offer her, she can join; if she doesn’t see any value in belonging, she can just say no and the union can’t force her to pay any dues. Imagine that.
This new voluntary spirit seems to be catching on with leaders of other unions, as well. Gary Casteel, a veteran union organizer recently named secretary-treasurer of the United Auto Workers, has come out in favor of right-to-work laws. In February, he said, “This is something I’ve never understood, that people think right-to-work hurts unions. To me, it helps them. You don’t have to belong if you don’t want to. So if I go to an organizing drive, I can tell these workers, ‘If you don’t like this arrangement, you don’t have to belong.’ Versus, ‘If we get 50 percent of you, then all of you have to belong, whether you like to or not.’ I don’t even like the way that sounds, because it’s a voluntary system, and if you don’t think the system’s earning its keep, then you don’t have to pay.”
Former Florida teacher and teacher-union president Doug Tuthill also seems comfortable with the right-to-work trend. “The two most effective unions in the United States are the National Rifle Association and the AARP,” Tuthill wrote on redefinEd, an education reform website. “They’re not industrial unions, but they are unions, and they are far more effective politically and financially than today’s teachers unions. Teachers should adopt this model. . . . Unlike today’s teachers unions, the NRA and AARP do not require their members to be part of a centralized bureaucracy. Their members are united by common values and interests.”
As unions come to terms with the right-to-work movement, they fall into line with broader public sentiment. A poll conducted earlier this year by Google Consumer Surveys found that nearly 83 percent of the American public believes that workers should have the right to choose whether to join a union. Additionally, nearly 29 percent of union members nationwide responded they would be interested in leaving their union if given the opportunity. And in its annual Labor Day poll, Gallup found 82 percent of Americans agree that “no American should be required to join any private organization, like a labor union, against his will.” Perhaps unions are on the verge of conforming to what Alexis de Tocqueville called the characteristic institutions of American life—voluntary associations. It’s about time.