Indiana Teacher Case Should Unsettle Colorado Union Foes of Member Options

Colorado union leaders succeeded in killing this year’s House Bill 1333, a proposal that would have granted teachers the ability to opt in or out of union membership with 30 days notice. Yes, they hung their opposition on the pathetic “local control” argument. And they have to be hoping the issue just goes away.

But poke your head to look around a bit, and what do you see? Well, in Nevada efforts have stepped up dramatically to notify Clark County teachers of a very brief and inconvenient union opt-out period. And then today EAG News brings the story of an Indiana teacher who has been sued by the union after she missed a 2011 revocation deadline:

[Gina] Walker, a seventh-grade special education teacher in Indiana’s Randolph Central School Corporation, tried to quit her union last summer, but missed the July 30 drop deadline.

Because of that, union representatives told her she was required to remain a dues-paying member for the 2011-12 school year. When Walker refused to continue dues payments, the union president and vice president said they’d bring her to small claims court to get their money.

That was last August. Over the past 11 months, Walker has received multiple letters from the union, including a last-chance warning in January. The case went to trial last month, but was delayed by a technicality.

A couple observations…. First, the story is silent about the means by which Ms. Walker, the Indiana teacher, paid her dues. The typical arrangement in Colorado is for the union to use its guaranteed access to school district payroll systems to skim from the top of paychecks of teachers who have signed up. One would guess the Indiana teacher was paying her union dues by check or private electronic transfer. Why can’t more Colorado school districts beyond Douglas County undertake that ethical approach?

Second, the case from Indiana suggests that removing government agencies as the middleman in union dues collection may not be enough by itself to fairly protect education workers’ rights. A union that has to go directly to teachers and other employees to request and continue dues collection is one that should be more accountable to individual members’ needs and concerns. All the more reason for Colorado to look closely again at some measure like HB 1333.

Maybe a union collecting its own dues won’t automatically become more accountable to those it is supposed to represent. If Randolph Central’s payroll department were withholding her dues, the district would be the defendant in the lawsuit rather than Ms. Walker. Then again, maybe this particular Indiana teacher was a rare exception who opted to pay her own dues directly while most of her union member colleagues let the monthly dues sums be deducted from their paychecks.

It appears that technically Ms. Walker may be at fault for missing the opt-out deadline “hidden away” in the union collective bargaining contract. Thus, as I’ve said before, teachers need to be better informed about their options, and the carefully crafted limitations on those options. The problem isn’t isolated to Indiana by any means. Many Colorado educators similarly have defined revocation periods and procedures, which vary from district to district.

Funny how someone can become a member any time, though. Wouldn’t it just be simpler and fairer to teachers to have a rule like HB 1333 that would increase their options? Oh, I’m sorry. That’s right… Limiting teacher options is an issue of “local control.” Excuse me while I go laugh and squirt this milk out of my nose somewhere other than on the keyboard….