Commentary: A Time for Fairness

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For over three decades, the teachers’ union has had a near monopoly on payroll deductions for teachers. It is a practice that is inherently unfair. Current legislation House Bill 356 and Senate Bill 404 would bring much needed clarity to the issue of payroll deduction. It is important to note: this legislation is not about organizations, it is about fairness to all 77,000+ educators in our state.

Tennessee has clearly established that teachers should have the right to join the professional association of their choosing, so it follows that it should be established that educators have equal opportunity in how they pay their dues to the organization of their choosing. There are currently at least 6 organizations actively competing for members and serving educators in our state, from Professional Educators of Tennessee, National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, Christian Educators Association International, American Association of Educators and in Memphis only….the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association.

It would be a gross mischaracterization to say that one association is being singled out or targeted. On the contrary, one organization has enjoyed an unfair monopoly. There are numerous teaching organizations in our state, and more than likely we may see more in the future. All deserve the same right in regard to payroll deductions of member dues.

Some critics try to misrepresent the issue by tying the issue to the Professional Educators Collaborative Conferencing Act (PECCA). This created new avenues of communication between teachers and school boards and stressing inclusiveness of all professional employees’ organizations. It is important to remember: No teacher, group of teachers, or teachers’ organization shall be denied the opportunity to represent themselves or groups of professional employees; and, Directors of Schools may communicate with teachers on the subjects of collaborative conferencing through any means, medium or format the director chooses.

The issue of payroll deductions for all organizations really has nothing to do with PECCA, or Collaborative Conferencing so let’s not cloud the issue. It matters little what districts are currently engaged or not engaged in collaborative conferencing.   We simply have no idea if districts may or may not engage in Collaborative Conferencing moving forward.  So this legislation protects all teachers, now and in the future. State law, especially PECCA, is somewhat vague on payroll deductions, and clearly district policies are all over the place. I should point out:

  • The vast majority of districts do not engage in Collaborative Conferencing and we need a clear and simple direction for the local districts from the state on this issue.
  • In fact, when we called each district to inquire about setting up payroll deduction for our members next year, not a single district referenced PECCA or anything related to Collaborative Conferencing.

Very few districts gave us the easy, straightforward steps to have it set up for our members. There were more roadblocks than answers. Quite a few districts said they would only allow payroll deductions for TEA/NEA, and handful said they would only do it if we weren’t affiliated with them. Others ranged from not having any “available slots” to having to check with their board first. PECCA is a complex law, and at times seems contradictory. For example payroll deductions are permitted, except those dollars going to political activity. Determining political activity has never been fully vetted, or explained.

The proposed legislation allows districts to charge up to 10% of the member dues deducted as a service fee. In regard to the fee, an ongoing 3-5% would be more in line with the fees paid to credit card processors. Our organization would prefer a cap being set not to exceed 5%, but we welcome the discussion. We have established a system for recurring monthly payments via credit or debit a long time ago because we were being denied payroll deduction in so many districts. Therefore, our organization would happily pay those fees to an LEA rather than some big merchant processing company. However, we also understand that in some cases there may need to be some adjustments to the system to add more slots, and we trust the districts’ discretion to charge a fee. That seems fair.

Any state law or district policy should be designed to require equal treatment of all teacher associations. If followed correctly, the state would simply be facilitating an open playing field for all associations, and teachers themselves would make the ultimate decisions of which organization to join – if any. Automatic payroll deduction is the easiest way for teachers pay their dues, and is convenient. It allows the teachers to spread their dues payments out over the entire year, making them very much smaller and they come out when they get paid. Annually, the teachers would need to authorize which organization they wish to join that year. This is pretty straightforward.

It is important that all competing education organizations be given equal treatment. This should also include equal time to speak with teachers in meetings, equal access to mailboxes, or email addresses, or any other contact, but especially payroll deductions. An equal access law also has the benefit of getting school districts out of the business of choosing winner or losers, and empowers all teachers.

This legislation is reasonable. It also will ensure all 77,000 plus educators have the same right across the state to access payroll deduction for the organization of their choice. Representative Bill Dunn and Senator Dolores Gresham should be commended for bringing this legislation, House Bill 356 and Senate Bill 404. It is time every organization is given equal rights and that the playing field is equal for current and future educators.

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter @jcbowman. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited.

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