I was scanning through my teacher’s union magazine when something caught my eye, a conference session on adult bullying. It was an article on a CTA (California Teachers Association) Issues Conference, and presumably the session was on how to prevent or deal with adult bullying, but it struck me as ironic. You see, in my view, the CTA is a bully. The top hit on a Google search defines bullying as, “ to use superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force him or her to do what one wants.” I didn’t start my career as a California public school teacher 13 years ago with this opinion of the CTA. As a matter of fact, after spending more than 20 years in the private sector as an educator and administrator (working far too many hours for way too little pay and no benefits whatsoever) I specifically sought out a union job in the public sector. Who doesn’t want to earn a more competitive salary? Who doesn’t want to secure favorable insurance benefits for their family? Who doesn’t want access to a guaranteed retirement plan? Who doesn’t want to have a reasonable assurance of continued employment and predictable pay raises? The CTA has the superior strength and influence to help secure those things; however, I have come to believe this position of strength comes with a high cost. A cost that comes from tactics that, I believe, can only be viewed as adult bullying.
The CTA presents itself as an organization that is out to help the underdog. “CTA has been at the forefront of the labor movement since its inception more than 150 years ago, fighting for educators’ rights and the rights for every public school student to have access to a quality education,” reports their website. A scan through their monthly magazine reveals articles about teacher views and opinions; inspiring teachers, programs and schools; and ways that the CTA is advocating to help students and educators fight for their rights. Its self-portrayal seems to indicate a group of educators, united in mission and values (for the most part) that have willingly come together. In some ways the union even presents itself as an underdog, forced to provide services even to those who are non-deserving. In the February 2016 issue of “California Educator,” CTA President Eric C. Heins says, “As an educator, it’s your right not to agree with your union on every political position. And it’s your right not to join. No one is forced to join the union, even though the union is required by law to represent nonmembers in contract-related issues.” Mr. Heins has a very different view of how things work than I do. First, I am not sure what being forced to join the union would look like, but I don’t really recall being given a choice. Of course there was paperwork that I had to fill out to join, however, the default was, “You are now a member of the union, sign here.” I was not even aware that there was an option until I ran across an article on the internet on the procedure to leave the union. Second, I certainly have no recollection of being asked for permission for union dues to be taken from my paycheck. When money is automatically withdrawn from my paycheck it does not feel as if I have a choice. In my view Mr. Heins overstates that there is a “choice,” but let me give you more information and you decide. You decide if the actions of the CTA remind you more of a group that gives choice, or a bullying organization.
- As a new public school teacher and member of the CTA I became concerned and perplexed that much of my union dues were going to political activities that I was completely opposed to. Not only did I typically disagree with the union’s stance on political issues a majority of the time, I found that many of the political issues that the union supported had very little relevance to the education of children, or in protecting educators’ rights, and in my view were not a good choice for union dues expenditures. From some of my colleagues I found out that it was possible to pull my union dues out of the political action funds. However, to do so was a complicated and not well known process that had to be repeated each year. In order to opt out members had to request a blue card, fill it out, and mail it in by a designated date. My colleagues and I spent a considerable amount of time researching this process, and keeping track of dates so that we could participate in the process. (Even now, a search of the CTA site provides no easily found information on how to allocate your dues money.) Once we completed this process no money was refunded and CTA still withdrew monthly dues from our checks. The promise was that CTA was not allowed to use that portion of our dues for political activities; however, we were never notified that the required documentation was actually received, nor how the requested portion of our dues were actually being spent. For all we knew our “blue cards” were being sent to some big black hole (resembling a shredder) and never looked at again. Free choice, or bullying?
- A couple of years after I began my public school employment union members were informed that the union needed more funds for its political activities, so $20 extra would be pulled out of our paychecks. If we wanted this “Voluntary Contribution” back, we just had to ask for it. Now why, I ask you, if I had already asked that my money not be used for political activities would I want an additional $20 taken from my check? Free choice or bullying?
- After struggling with this silliness for a few years a colleague presented an alternate plan. He had decided that rather than simply pull his funds from the political action category, he would actually leave the union. It was not an easy process as one does not just choose not to join, because member or not, the union will take money out of my paycheck each month. So, I had to not only ask to not be a member of the union, I also have to submit a letter asking for a refund of the money that is pulled out of my check each month. If I do so by a certain date I do receive a refund check, however it is not for the full union dues. A large portion of the money taken out of my paycheck is for collective bargaining, which you cannot resign from. I must pay into the collective bargaining fund, whether or not I am a member of the union, and despite the fact that I am not able to vote to ratify proposed contracts nor participate in the Collective Bargaining process. So contrary to the picture that Mr. Heins paints about “no one forcing you to be a part of the union” and “the union (being) required by law to represent nonmembers in contract-related issues” I am required by law to pay for the privilege. Free choice or bullying?
- The last piece of my story has to do with my local union. Fortunately, this story has a happy ending, but I believe it illustrates how the CTA bullying mindset is at work sometimes even at the local level. Let me preface this story by relating that for the most part I, and the others at my school who have left the union, do not have a beef with the local union. The local union consists of friends and colleagues, most of whom are doing what they think best, or what they think needs to be done to provide us with competitive wages and compensation. And most of the time I can support, or at least understand, their actions. As a matter of fact our small group of non-union members asked to maintain membership in the local union, but were blocked from doing so by the CTA. We cannot belong to the local union without CTA membership. As such the local union remains a part of CTA, and at times they do things that I believe reflects the bullying mentality of CTA. With that in mind I will share my story. It may have seemed like a nice friendly campaign to get those of us who have left the union to rejoin. The goal was 100% CTA membership, and a bulletin board would be placed in the lounge with all members’ names. If the school achieves 100% the local president will provide a donut party. Seems a bit like a PTA campaign, so what could be the problem? Well, unlike the PTA, which is an apolitical organization designed to provide needed help and support for students, the CTA is a highly politicized, highly controversial organization designed to further its own agenda. It masquerades as an organization that provides support for students, but its actions do not support that claim. So, what could be wrong with a campaign that seeks to single out those who have taken great steps to leave the union because they have moral or philosophical differences with the policies and political actions of the CTA? Free choice or bullying, you decide. The happy ending of this story is that when one of our non-union members voiced his feeling of being singled out the campaign was suspended and the bulletin board was taken down. I applaud our local president and vice president for listening, understanding and moving promptly to right what may have been a very divisive campaign.
Many of my colleagues support and agree with the CTA, their actions and political stance. I have no argument with these people, and support their right to join and financially support the union’s activities. However, I believe that there are a large number of union members who do not agree with the CTA’s stance, tactics or political views who continue to be a member. From my point of view it seems that the CTA’s bullying tactics have succeeded in convincing these teachers that they have no choice but to remain a member of the union. They believe that their jobs, livelihood and financial security are at risk if they do not support the union, even though they disagree with most of the views and tactics of the CTA. I mean no disrespect to those who believe this, but I think this view is just wrong-headed.
One thing that teachers are charged with is teaching children how to deal with bullies. Here is a typical list of what is taught:
If The Bully Says or Does Something to You
- Ignore the bully. If you can, try your best to ignore the bully’s threats. …
- Stand up for yourself. Pretend to feel really brave and confident. …
- Don’t bully back. …
- Don’t show your feelings. …
- Tell an adult.
And yet we do not follow our own guidance. We surrender to the bully’s threats, and believe them. We do not stand up for ourselves. Instead we embrace the bully’s rhetoric, ally with, and bully others if necessary. How does this even make sense?
CTA members, I am not asking you to follow what I have done and leave the union. I am not asking for you to fight against CTA or any of its tactics. And I am certainly not asking you to speak out against them, but I do ask one thing: go in with your eyes wide open. If you decide to join or remain a member know what you joining, and know why. Not why you are told you should be a member, but why it really makes sense for you.
One of my biggest complaints against the CTA is that I cannot trust anything they say. Most months of the year I receive a copy of their member magazine. Yes, they still send it to me despite the fact that I am no longer a member. Many of the topics that they report on are of interest to me, so I always scan the entire magazine, and I usually read much of it. One of the things that we, as teachers, are charged with teaching to our students is the ability to determine the validity of arguments and analyzing the validity of purported facts. While I am sure that much of what is reported in the CTA magazine is true and useful (specifically the non-controversial portions) I have a hard time taking it seriously because some of the articles are, in my opinion, pure and simple propaganda by any measure. Were I to use this magazine as an example for my students, it would clearly be an example of an unreliable source.
Case in point: a feature in the December 2015/ January 2016 issue on the Friedrichs V. CTA case. The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments on this case in January of 2016 and in March it was announced that an equally divided decision (due to a vacant seat in the Supreme Court) left the current status in effect. A petition has been filed for the case to be re-heard after the vacant seat is filled. Before I received the magazine I had heard a lot about this case, and was anxious to read an article that outlined the issues. I don’t think I really expected a balanced view from the CTA, but it would have been nice to at least have some basic information about that case. Instead the feature focused on Fair Share (interesting choice of words in and of itself, whose idea of fair?), why it is important and why the loss of Fair Share will jeopardize jobs, well rounded educational programs, class size, school safety, districts and families and people’s civil rights and could lead to more high stakes testing (huh?). The feature went on to list those who support the Friedrichs case in what seems to be to me a very biased manner. While it is true that the Friedrichs case threatens the current status quo that requires me to pay for union representation, a feature that only focuses on CTA’s version of what the loss of “Fair Share’s” would mean does nothing to enlighten me on the facts of the Friedrich’s case. It is clearly an attempt to manipulate people’s views by reporting threats to things they care about including their very livelihood. The definition of propaganda, according to the top hit on Google, is, “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.” In my view this article clearly meets the criteria of propaganda as it does nothing to enlighten me on the pros and cons of the issue, and seeks only to promote their point of view or political cause.
So I ask you, fellow teachers, if we cannot trust the CTA to tell us the truth in their own magazine, how can we trust anything they say? They say you won’t get a fair wage or benefits without them. They say your job will be jeopardized if they aren’t there to support you. They say schools will not be safe or well-rounded and that there will be more high stakes testing without them. Are these things true? Maybe, maybe not. I do know that there are lots of lots of people in our country today who have rewarding, well compensated jobs with good working conditions with no union support. I do know that there are plenty of work place injustices when no union supports are available, but I am not convinced there are not just as many within a union environment. And, I do know that when individuals or groups have unchecked power they have a tendency to become corrupt and are prone to bully those without power. In my view the CTA has reached this point and I think it is time to check its power.
If the Friedrichs case is upheld by the supreme court Fair Share may be ended, and I may have a right to decide to pay into the union or not. My question is, if the union is so great what are they afraid of? If they are really giving us such a great service, won’t everyone want to be a part of that? In my opinion the CTA only really cares about the CTA. Sure, there are those within the union that care about kids and issues that relate to education. But the number one mission of the CTA seems be preservation of the CTA and its superior power. I think it is time for its wings to be clipped. I think that teachers need to have their voices heard. When was the last time the CTA asked your opinion instead of telling you what they decided your opinion should be? Do you hold membership in the CTA because you believe in and support their values, views and mission; or are you just a member out of fear for what may happen if you don’t remain in their ranks?
At the bottom of one of the pages in the Friedrichs case feature there is a drawing of teachers holding up signs, the middle one saying, “Yes to Fair Share.” Around those signs are other signs that say, Teachers Matter,” “Enough,” Worker’s Right’s” and “Serve Students.” At least they got most of it right. Say Enough to the CTA. No matter how the Friedrichs case is decided we can assert our Worker’s Rights and show them that Teacher’s Matter. Every day we spend time Serving Students. The question is, are you maintaining your CTA membership with your eyes wide open? As much as they want to make us think that membership is the only reasonable choice, the choice is really yours. Make it responsibly.