Two Ind. Suits Put Teacher and Union at Odds
Last spring, an Indiana teacher circulated a flier that spelled out exactly what he thought of the state's teachers' unions.
Dennis J. Norman, who teaches high school English in Portage, a city on the shore of Lake Michigan, was campaigning against a "fair share" clause in his district's labor contract. Courts have ruled that unions in the state are allowed to negotiate the clause, which forces nonmembers to pay some dues for bargaining services.
Mr. Norman soon discovered he had crossed the wrong people.
The local union--backed by the Indiana State Teachers Association--and some trustees of the state union's insurance fund sued him. They claimed that he and a local nonunion teachers' organization he had helped form were out to destroy their reputations.
Now, Mr. Norman and his 60-member Alliance of Professional Educators are entangled in what promises to be a long legal battle.
The teacher has filed a countersuit charging that a local union leader wrote a letter, also circulated throughout the district, in which he accused Mr. Norman of lying.
The two suits are unusual--if not the first of their kind--for the teaching profession, according to labor experts and national teachers' union officials.
But they illustrate how the already strained relations between teachers' unions and those in the profession who object to them can quickly turn venomous.
Union critics, such as Mr. Norman, say they have no voice in a profession in which most teachers join up. Indiana, for example, has an estimated 50,000 teachers' union members compared with 2,000 teachers who belong to nonunion educators' groups.
But a thriving grassroots movement against teachers' unions in the state has union officials there concerned that their opponents are out to obstruct union business.
Longtime activists in the antiunion movement, meanwhile, maintain that the situation in the 8,000-student Portage district is a good example of how teachers' unions deal with opposition. These activists say labor leaders aim to silence critics by throwing their weight around in the courtroom.
"We're supposed to hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil when it comes to the unions," said Jane Ping, the president of the 1,000-member Indiana Professional Educators, a statewide group that shares many of the views of Mr. Norman's local organization.
Ms. Ping said some teachers are penalized for their antiunion views by being excluded from activities such as sitting on district committees or being a part of site-based-decisionmaking teams.
Mr. Norman, who was joined by Ms. Ping's group in his campaign against the fair-share clause, also said in the flier and a letter he circulated that two longtime union members lost their seats on a district panel when they dropped their union memberships.
Ms. Ping, a retired kindergarten teacher from Indianapolis, said the defamation case against Mr. Norman is a sign of things to come.
Mr. Norman is "not the type of person who's aggressive or that outspoken," she said. "But teachers are fed up with being controlled by the union. I think they're going to fight until they get some freedom."
The union's suit against Mr. Norman, filed in Porter County Superior Court, contends that his flier and accompanying letter contained "outright falsehoods" and defamatory statements, Richard Darko, the lawyer for the state teachers' association, said.
In the six-page letter, which was circulated to about 400 teachers, Mr. Norman detailed his objections to fair share and argued that the state union was getting rich on the backs of teachers.
He claimed that the 320-member Portage Association of Teachers was "just a poorly paid I.S.T.A. collection agency," and that the cost of medical coverage had skyrocketed since the union's insurance trust became the teachers' carrier.
"Thanks to [the union's] help on negotiations, they are making out like bandits and we are supposed to appreciate what they have done for us," Mr. Norman wrote.
The teacher and his local professional group had been gathering ammunition against fair share, also called "agency shop," since union and district officials negotiated the clause last year.
Mr. Darko, however, contended that some of the information in the flier and the letter "was intended to make people question whether the association is sound."
Mr. Norman's "inference that the insurance trust could go belly up" if Portage teachers stopped contributing to the fund was the most obvious example of his intentions, the lawyer said.
"That's something that just scares the heck out of people who have their money in a certain bank or trust fund," Mr. Darko said. "In fact, the trust is very solvent and has good reserves."
He added that "at times Mr. Norman seemed to rely on things he heard around the lunchroom" to build his campaign.
Mr. Norman said he obtained most of his information from union documents and from news reports and policy papers, according to Milton Chappell, one of his lawyers. Mr. Chappell works for the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, a Springfield, Va.-based group that aids employees opposed to "forced unionism."
Mr. Norman also argues that much of the information was stated as opinion or in the form of rhetorical questions, Mr. Chappell said.
Mr. Norman and union officials declined to comment while the lawsuit is pending.
Last week, the teacher's lawyers were waiting for the court to rule on whether certain insurance-trust documents must be released.
Mr. Chappell compared the union's lawsuit to those brought by big business against whistle-blowers. "They're intended to make you think twice about talking up again," he said.
But Mr. Darko said union leaders only hope that the suit will send this message to other educators: Express your opinion but be careful with the facts.
Fighting Fair Share
In Indiana, fair-share clauses have become a lightning rod for the antiunion movement.
There and in most of the other 22 states with agency-shop authorizations, nonunion teachers have three options: They can pay full dues, object and pay only a portion of the dues, or challenge the union in court.
National Education Association officials said most teachers opt to pay the full amount. If they pay a share, the union can collect dues only for such activities as negotiating and processing grievances.
Teachers who pay the fair share in Indiana would be asked to pay about 80 percent to 85 percent of the local dues. Full local dues in Indiana vary from about $10 to $50 a year, union officials said.
The nonmembers would also have to pay a percentage of state and national union dues because such membership is "unified" in Indiana. I.S.T.A. members' dues are about $350 this year, while the parent N.E.A. is charging about $100.
As in other states, many teachers object to paying full dues because they disagree with the unions' political activities.
But in Indiana there are now about 20 cases involving teachers who refused to pay outright. Because state law does not allow districts to deduct agency-shop fees from teacher paychecks without the teachers' agreement, the unions must take such teachers to court.
Nationally, about three million teachers are members of the N.E.A. or the American Federation of Teachers. About 300,000 teachers belong to professional educators' groups, according to Concerned Educators Against Forced Unionism, an arm of the National Right to Work Committee.