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Tennessee Teachers Should Decide Union Membership for Themselves

Editor's Note: The piece originally appeared in The Tennessean on Wednesday, August 17, 2022 and can be found here.

At the Association of American Educators (AAE), we know that Tennessee's educators are among the brightest in the nation, and we trust that state leaders agree.

That’s why we urge them to establish policy that respects teachers’ judgment – especially when it comes to deciding whether to join and pay a labor union while teaching in Tennessee’s public schools.

As a national professional educator organization, AAE serves tens of thousands of members throughout the country and many members here in Tennessee.

We believe educators should be fully informed of their rights and empowered to opt in or out of association membership at any time. The topic is a timely one, as Aug. 14-20 marks National Employee Freedom Week.

The annual effort raises awareness among public employees, like teachers, about their option to decide union membership without fear of retribution.

Protecting employees’ rights has long been a state priority. Three quarters of a century ago, Tennessee became one of the earliest adopters of right-to-work protections, which ensures that employees can benefit from their hard work regardless of whether they join a labor union.

That commitment continues today, as state leaders work to enshrine employee protections into the state constitution. Governor Bill Lee, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton have all been outspoken supporters of the effort.

Their leadership is important because gaps in state law still exist that prevent educators from fully exercising their association rights.

The decision to join a union should be a personal one, made in confidence with the benefit of full information about teachers’ rights.

In AAE’s Declaration of Educator Association Rights, we explain that non-members cannot be required to pay union fees, that they have the right to a representative at a disciplinary meeting and that they have the right to join but cannot be required to join a union.

Raising awareness about issues like these is an important step, but we can’t afford to stop there. Tennessee leaders can do more.

First, policymakers could give educators greater control over their paychecks by ensuring they can opt out of association membership at any time. Under the current system, arbitrary windows limit when teachers can exercise this fundamental right.

These practices are disrespectful to the highly skilled professionals we entrust to educate our children. Association membership should always be active, informed and voluntary. Recent survey data shows that almost 85% of teachers agree, saying they should be able to join or leave a union at any time. Tennessee should protect educator association rights and empower educators by ensuring membership is always voluntary.

Second, the state should revisit the practice of having public employers collect dues on an association’s behalf at no cost. While presented as a convenience to members, in practice this uses public resources to provide a service to private organizations.

School districts are entitled to and deserve comparable service fees — just as credit card processors or online payment companies would charge the associations to collect payments from members. Schools can make immediate use of that revenue to benefit Tennessee students.

Finally, no private association should be leveraging the power of public employers to withhold money from a teacher’s paycheck against their will. Tennessee should protect the right of educators to cease payroll deduction payments to an association at any time with a simple request to their employer, leaving the individual educator and the association to resolve the matter.

The proposals above do not prevent or discourage a single educator who wants to belong to a union from doing so.

In fact, efforts to empower educators and protect their association rights serve only to strengthen educator input and influence in whichever association they choose.

Tennessee has a proven track record of commitment to academic excellence and a thriving professional environment.

Meanwhile, educators make sacrifices and work tirelessly to prepare Tennessee students for the future.

The time has come for Tennessee’s capable leaders to ensure the law respects and empowers educators to make their own association decisions.

Colin Sharkey is executive director and Noelani Kahapea is director of policy and strategic partnerships at the Association of American Educators.

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