Who Speaks For You?

April 01, 1990 2 min read

teachers’ union. He or she won’t be pressuring you to take up with a small band of disgruntled colleagues. An overwhelming majority of the nation’s teachers--roughly 85 percent--belong to local affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers or the National Education Association. Although the AFT is often referred to as “the union” and the NEA as “the association,” both are full-fledged labor unions; in the states that allow teachers to bargain collectively, their affiliates sit down with management and negotiate contracts.

Upon taking a job, you have several options. You can ignore your fellow educator’s pitch; by law, you cannot be required to join a union. You can sign on with the union that has been selected by the local teachers to represent them at the bargaining table. Or you can choose to align yourself with a local alternative organization, if one exists.

In some districts, for example, both the AFT and the NEA have affiliates. Although only one union can officially represent the teachers of a given school system, another group may attempt to secure enough teacher support to wrest the bargaining rights from its rival. The overwhelming majority of teachers choose to belong to the union that is the local bargaining agent. Once you join a local affiliate of either of the two national unions, you automatically become a member of the national organization and of its state affiliate.

If you decide not to join a union, you should be aware that as an employed teacher you may be required in some jurisdictions to contribute to the local bargaining effort. Twenty states and the District of Columbia allow local unions to negotiate what is called an “agency shop” fee. Such a provision requires a school district to deduct a predetermined sum from the salary of each nonunion employee and pay it to the local union to cover your “fair share” of the bargaining costs. The fee varies from district to district, but is often equal to 85 percent of a member’s annual dues.

Seventeen states do not permit teachers to bargain with their local school boards. Teacher unions exist in these states. But instead of negotiating locally, they put their substantial resources to work at the state level, lobbying for increased funding for teachers’ salaries and benefits and other initiatives that they believe will benefit their members and public education. The locals in these states tend to be service oriented, providing teachers with professional liability insurance and legal representation, for example.

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Who Speaks For You?