Guest Post: Shattering Myths About Government Unions

As a former public school teacher, I can tell you: plenty of false messages circulate about union membership. Is union membership required? Why do government employees belong to unions and who does this benefit (or harm)?

It’s time to dispel the myths spread by those who benefit from keeping government workers and the public in the dark.

MYTH #1: Nobody is “forced” to join or pay a union.

The Truth: It’s technically true that after the Janus v. AFSCME decision, no government employee can be forced to pay fair share fees. However, unionization is still coercive. Members who are not happy with their union and want to resign are often trapped for years because of narrow resignation windows, a restrictive policy called “maintenance of membership.” Also, union fear tactics and lack of knowledge among new government workers results in many becoming union members out of anxiety about the unknown.

Resignation windows trap countless workers in Pennsylvania each year—teachers like Cheri Gensel or social service workers like Francisco Molina. By now, lawsuits over the issue have piled up.

MYTH #2: Dues aren’t used for politics.

The Truth: Let’s straighten this out once and for all. When teachers’ unions repeatedly say union dues cannot be used for politics, they mean very narrowly that union dues cannot be given directly to political candidates.

However, dues can be spent on several “soft” political activities: get-out-the-vote drives, election mailers, lobbying, and marketing campaigns. In 2017-18, the PSEA spent $2.9 million of teachers’ union dues on “political activities and lobbying”—and $29 million since 2010. Just look at the PSEA’s Voice Magazine, letters to members, or lobbyist salaries to see where dues are being spent.

That’s why Janus v. AFSCME specifically protected workers’ First Amendment rights—because government employees shouldn’t have to fund a hyper-political organization they don’t agree with.

MYTH #3: The Janus case is an attack on unions.

The Truth: After Janus, unions are justifiably afraid of losing their fee payers—PSEA, for example, has 6,704. That means they may have lost over $3 million post-Janus—but was that money rightfully theirs?

Unions are strongest when fulfilling their true purpose of advocating for members—all Janus did was incentivize them to do that. Union members who have come forward with stories (and even lawsuits) about union exploitation could be won over by union leaders. But like Mark Janus, the child support specialist who filed the Janus case, they’ve only been pushed further away.

MYTH #4: Workers who don’t pay the union are “free riders.”

The Truth: Through Pennsylvania’s 1970 Public Employee Relations Act, labor unions lobbied for the right to become the “exclusive representative” of all employees in a bargaining unit, whether such employees were union members or not. Unions then argued that non-members were “free riders” unless they paid their “fair share fees.”

Unions deflect with slurs like “free rider” and “scab” when workers freely choose to resign membership. But these insults don’t change the facts. Those who don’t join the union, and after Janus don’t pay fair share fees, are not “free riders.” They’ve always been forced riders, unable to choose whether they have union representation or not.

MYTH #5: Unions always advocate for workers' best interests.

The Truth: All too often, union leaders act in the union’s best interest at the expense of workers. Take the case of Mark Kiddo, an Erie Water Works employee who is suing AFSCME. Mark’s union withheld vital information from him and his co-workers: a superior salary and benefits package their employer was offering. The benefits plan structure didn’t fit AFSCME’s prior messaging, so they opted not to tell the Erie Water Works employees about the opportunity at all.

The host of resignations and lawsuits illustrate what many unions have become: political organizations seeking to preserve their influence at any cost.

Instead of obliging unions’ misinformation, these fibs must be confronted. Pennsylvania workers shouldn’t be left in the dark. The best way forward is to notify all state workers of their rights—like we do in our tax code, our public schools, and even our law enforcement.

The Employee Rights Notification Act (HB 785), sponsored by Kate Klunk, does just that. Right now, the legislature has the opportunity to shine the light of truth on union leaders' deceptions and let workers decide for themselves.