Teaching Profession

Lawmakers Target How Teachers’ Unions Collect Dues

By Madeline Will — April 06, 2023 8 min read
Close up shot of some money overlapping a partial paystub revealing some blurred numbers and the words Total Pay, Taxes, and Deductions.
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There’s another legislative effort tied to teacher pay that’s advancing through statehouses this spring—eliminating payroll deduction services.

In many places, teachers who want to be a union member can sign up to have their dues automatically deducted from their paychecks. The service is a convenience for both teachers and their unions, but Republican lawmakers in at least five states are trying to get rid of or limit that option.

The legislators say that it’s not necessary for public school districts to be involved in financial transactions on behalf of unions. But teachers’ unions say that adapting to these measures will require a lot of time and money and could hurt their membership numbers. They also point out that many of these bills exclude conservative-leaning unions, like those for police, and target teachers’ unions, which typically support Democratic politicians.

“It’s a roadblock they’re trying to throw up,” said Eddie Campbell, the president of the Kentucky Education Association. “It’s an unsubtle attempt to try to silence the political opposition that we have as an association.”

The legislation is part of an ongoing conservative effort to weaken teachers’ union influence in schools. In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that teachers do not have to pay “agency” or “fair share” fees if they’re not union members—eliminating a major source of revenue for teachers’ unions and making it easier for teachers to leave the union.

Since then, legislation and litigation have further targeted teachers’ unions, including seeking to reduce the length of time educators have to decide whether or not they want to stay in the union.

In one state, this measure has already become law

A bill that would prohibit school districts from deducting dues for unions or other professional organizations from school employee’s paychecks has passed the Arkansas legislature and is headed to Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ desk. Similar bills have passed one chamber of the legislature in Florida and Tennessee. (In Tennessee, the measure is attached to a proposed teacher pay raise that would ensure every teacher in the state makes at least $50,000 by the 2026-27 school year.)

Oklahoma lawmakers are also considering a bill that would make it so payroll deductions cannot be authorized for longer than one year at a time.

And in Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, vetoed a bill to prohibit school districts from deducting union dues from teachers’ paychecks—but lawmakers overrode the veto in late March. The law took effect immediately, meaning teachers who were signed up for payroll deduction services must enroll in a new payment system right away to stay current on their union dues.

The new law has exceptions for police and firefighter unions, but it also prohibits school employees from having their dues from non-union professional groups, like the Kentucky Association of School Administrators, deducted from their paychecks.

The measure “is an attack on unions and teacher associations that support and protect hard-working Kentucky families,” Beshear wrote in his veto letter. “These are people who educate our kids, drive our buses, pave our roads, and work in our libraries. Senate Bill 7 also has First Amendment implications, stifling public employees’ freedom of speech.”

Proponents of the bills disagree. Finding another method to collect dues “is a very minor inconvenience,” said Rusty Brown, the Southern director for Freedom Foundation, a conservative, free-market think tank. “To say that’s shifting rights away—that’s, at best, a stretch.”

He argued that it’s no longer necessary for public school districts to serve as a financial intermediator between teachers and their unions, since automatic bill payments are increasingly common and easy to set up.

Legislators in support of the bills have also said that having to let school district officials know whether you’re a union member could lead to harassment or discrimination.

“This bill is about removing any potential fear or intimidation in the workplace,” said Arkansas state Sen. Joshua Bryant, a Republican and the author of a related bill, during a floor debate, according to the Freedom Foundation. “The technology is there to be able to pay our dues direct. Why do we have to go through and fill out a form, check a box, and annually let people know what we’re doing? Why can’t we just take this like we do everything else and take it to our home?”

But Carol Fleming, the president of the Arkansas Education Association, rebutted the idea that payroll deduction services have led to workplace intimidation: “We don’t condone behavior like that,” she said.

She argued that lawmakers are specifically targeting educators, since the Arkansas bill does not include any other public-sector employees.

“We were hailed as heroes during the pandemic. We have worked tirelessly every day to ensure that every student succeeds and thrives, and this is the result,” Fleming said. “Educators, day in and day out, have shown up and faced those challenges to meet the needs of our students, but it’s getting harder due to low morale because of perceived attacks on our profession.

“This legislation removes an educator’s choice, an educator’s freedom in how they pay for membership in a professional organization, and that is why they believe it is another attack on the profession,” she said.

The broader political climate is contributing to the momentum of this type of legislation, Brown said, citing conservative concerns that teachers’ unions were responsible for prolonged COVID-19 school closures and are pushing “critical race theory” in schools.

“You go through years of that, and certainly states that lean more red, they’ve got to look and think, ‘Not only are we collecting money for these people, and we don’t need to be, look at what it’s going toward,’” Brown said.

A large administrative burden for unions

It’s not the first time ending payroll deduction has gained traction as a strategy to curb teachers’ union influence.

Many lawmakers proposed ending payroll deductions after the 2010 wave of Republican statehouse victories, said Bradley Marianno, an assistant professor of educational policy and leadership at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

In Michigan, a law prohibiting school districts from deducting union dues from employee paychecks went into effect in 2012—the same year the state enacted a right-to-work statute that allowed workers to choose not to pay union dues or join unions. (This year, Michigan repealed that right-to-work law. The change doesn’t affect teachers’ unions, though, because of the 2018 Supreme Court ruling.)

Teachers’ union officials in the state at the time said the payroll deduction law had a greater impact than the right-to-work law. After all, the change “makes it more challenging for unions to maintain members on their rolls,” Marianno said.

Union officials had to get all their members to sign up for a new form of dues payments, and then manage the administrative burden that came with those payments. For example, if an educator’s credit card expired, the union would then have to make sure that the educator added a new form of payment.

Most Arkansas Education Association members currently choose to pay their dues via payroll deductions instead of other available options, Fleming said. Switching all members to another system would take time and likely increase the amount of money the association pays in credit card processing fees, she said.

And there’s a risk that some members could be lost in the process. Fleming is especially worried about retired educators and classified employees, like bus drivers and janitors.

“Many of our classified employees do not have credit cards or bank accounts,” she said. “They’re living check to check. This is going to make it even more difficult for them to maintain their membership—a membership that they have come to rely on for support, for networking, for professional development, and for training.”

In Kentucky, legislators have introduced this type of legislation for several years. The state teachers’ association responded by setting up a system to allow members to pay their dues via credit card or electronic funds transfer, said Campbell, the KEA president.

Still, he said, it’s going to be a “big lift” for union leaders and staff to contact and have one-on-one conversations with members to get them to switch payment methods. Those conversations will require a lot of time and effort, Campbell said, but they’re also at the heart of union organizing.

“Ultimately, I think this is going to make us stronger,” he said. “We are having conversations one-on-one with our members, we’re … picking up new members.”

Even so, Campbell said KEA is working with its national counterpart, the National Education Association, to pursue possible litigation challenging the constitutionality of the new law.

Last month in Indiana, a federal judge blocked a pair of laws that required teachers to go through an annual three-step process to have union dues deducted from their paycheck. The lawsuit, which was filed by a group of educators and their unions, called it an “entirely unnecessary and onerous” process and argued that it “made it more difficult for the unions to maintain their representational vitality because it requires them to expend more time and resources to collect the dues.”

U.S. District Court Judge Sarah Barker ruled that the laws violated teachers’ First Amendment rights to freedom of association, although she rejected the plaintiffs’ claim that the laws violated their free speech rights.

Barker also wrote that since the laws were specific to teachers’ unions, they were discriminatory on the basis of viewpoint.

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