Why I Left Teaching: Union Politics

Note: This guest commentary by recently retired Westmoreland County public school teacher Bill Frye was first published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

I taught science full-time for more than two decades and enjoyed a rewarding career educating a generation of public school students in Westmoreland County. I retired from teaching earlier than I wanted, though, and I’d like to tell you why.

As a union member for most of my teaching career, I never disguised the fact that I disagreed with much of the Pennsylvania State Education Association’s political dogma. The union promoted values and ideals that I not only disagreed with, but also routinely had no relevance to education.

Before you jump to conclusions, let me assure you that I’m not anti-union. I’ve been generally happy with the local union in my old school district. I’ve also been a member of the farmers’ union all my life. Unions have an important place in society.

It is the state and national teachers’ unions—the PSEA and the National Education Association—that I grew to resent. Their use of my union dues to support political causes I disagreed with ultimately led me to leave education.

Case in point: A school year’s first teacher in-service day usually consists of the administration welcoming teachers, introducing new staff and outlining goals for the year. But in the fall of 2012, PSEA sponsored a pep rally and played a video for the entire school staff to encourage us to help re-elect President Barack Obama. Normally, events like this happen after the school workday—when attendance is voluntary, not when teachers are a captive audience.

What’s more, the PSEA’s magazine The Voice—which is sent to 180,000 members and paid for with our dues—regularly featured ads praising President Obama while denigrating and lampooning his opponents. Teachers paid for this political activity no matter which candidate we personally supported—and every other taxpayer paid for it as well.

How? Pennsylvania allows government unions to use taxpayer-funded payroll systems to collect their members’ dues—as well as optional political action committee contributions that can be sent directly to politicians.

But aren’t unions prohibited from using members’ dues for politics? Take it from the PSEA itself: Last year, their magazine featured a notice that 12 percent (which amounts to $7 million) of teachers’ dues would be used for political activity and lobbying. That’s in addition to millions in PAC money.

Unions use teachers’ money to advocate for policies that will leave teachers, students and all of us poorer. The main example is how the PSEA is advocating against reforming our deeply indebted public pension system.

One incentive for me to continue in public education was the pay and working conditions for educators. I looked forward to what, at least in my opinion, is a very generous retirement—which I will credit the unions for helping to achieve. But I’m also a landowner and property tax payer. I’m told the pension systems are $50 billion in debt and will require huge property tax hikes if nothing is done.

I feel sorry for people on fixed incomes—like some of my teacher colleagues who retired years ago—who will have to struggle to pay these rising taxes.

Everyone agrees the pension system, as it currently exists, is not sustainable. There are solutions to bring economic viability to the system. But the PSEA, using members’ dues money, is one of the main roadblocks to reasonable reform. In a recent “alert” email to members, the union called the latest compromise proposal a “pension attack” that “targets women and new employees” while offering no solutions except to raise taxes.

I couldn’t take any more of PSEA’s fear-mongering and divisiveness on political issues, so I spoke out. As a result, the personal attacks I received (from union members!) made me choose to retire and focus on my farm business.

But, as a taxpayer, there’s no escape: I’m still forced to help PSEA collect its political money.

Legislation called paycheck protection would stop PSEA and other government unions from using public payroll systems to siphon their political money from teachers’ pay.

I think if legislators truly support teachers, they should pass this effort to give them a bigger say over how their money is spent in the political world. Government unions might then engage in productive negotiation instead of political lobbying.

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Bill Frye is a retired public school science teacher from Westmoreland County.