Commentary: Giving ALL Teachers the Same Rights


Sometimes the first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious. — George Orwell


No one likes a monopoly except the monopolist, of course. For over three decades the Tennessee Education Association has had a virtual monopoly on payroll deductions for all Tennessee teachers. It is a practice that is inherently unfair. Current legislation Senate Bill 404 and House Bill 356 would bring much needed clarity to the issue of payroll deduction. It is important to note that this legislation is not about organizations; it is really about fairness to all 80,000+ educators in our state, now and in the future.

Should state government prohibit school districts and other local government bodies from using their payroll systems to let workers voluntarily deduct money from their paychecks for political causes, such as for the union’s political-action funds? If so, what about other employee and teacher organizations? Should they be granted the same right to payroll deduction?

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on this issue in Idaho in 2009. In Idaho, as in Alabama in 2010, a teacher’s union collected fees from teachers through payroll deductions, and the state Legislature moved to ban the practice. Writing for the majority of the court, Chief Justice John Roberts stated that freedom of speech “does not confer an affirmative right to use government payroll mechanisms for the purpose of obtaining funds for expression.” The court ruled that in the absence of a free speech violation, the state had only to show a “rational basis” for banning the payroll deductions. In the Idaho case the state cited an appearance of “entanglement” with political organizations as its reason for the ban.

A union’s ability to bargain with the government is a statutory, not constitutional, right. Thus, states are free to adopt laws that regulate the process and the entitlements granted to unions and other organizations. Private organizations are not able to utilize a government system to collect political contributions. “The ban on political payroll deductions furthers Idaho’s interest in separating the operations of government from partisan politics,” the chief justice said. “That interest extends to all public employers at whatever level of government.” Key point: no changes in the law involve “suppression of ideas,” as the union “remains as free as any other entity to participate in the electoral process with all available funds.” Professional Educators of Tennessee supports state standards that establish fair and equitable payroll deduction policies.

This legislation establishes a fair and equitable payroll deduction policy for our state. It also protects ALL teachers. Depending on the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court, passage of this legislation protects teacher rights in Tennessee. House Bill 356 and Senate Bill 404 will ensure all 80,000+ educators have the same right across the state to gain access to payroll deduction for the organization of their choice. It is time every organization is given equal rights and that the playing field is equal for current and future educators.


The question is really simple: Do we believe all teachers deserve the same rights, or not?

Tennessee has clearly established that teachers should have the right to join the professional employee organization or 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: 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.

Professional Employee Organizations are not vendors and should not be treated as such. We are recognized, as are other organizations, in existing state law. Professional employees’ organization means any organization with membership open to professional employees, in which the professional employees participate, and that exists for the purpose of promoting the professional status and growth of educators and the welfare of students; “Professional employee” means any person employed by any local board of education in a position that requires a license issued by the department of education for service in public elementary and secondary schools of this state, supported, in whole or in part, by local, state or federal funds.

Any state law or district policy should be designed to require equal treatment of all teacher associations, thus protecting the rights of all teachers. If followed correctly, the state would simply be facilitating an open playing field for all associations, and teachers themselves would make the ultimate decision of which– if any, organization to join.

Automatic payroll deduction is the easiest and most convenient way for teachers to pay their dues. It allows the teachers to spread out payments for their dues over the entire year, making much smaller deductions that come out each time they get paid. Annually, the teachers would need to authorize which organization they wish to join that year.  It also establishes consistency for teachers who transfer. For example, when a teacher transfers to another district they would not be subjected to the whims of a school district on this matter. This is pretty straightforward. Once the law is passed, it must be enforced.

Senate Bill 404 and House Bill 356 protect union members who could well lose payroll deductions in the future because of union political activity which may spur legal challenges to their right to payroll deductions. Determining political activity has never been fully vetted or explained. In Tennessee the Attorney General Herbert Slattery confirmed last June (AG Opinion No. 16-22, June 8, 2016) that “payroll deductions” shall not include any provisions permitting “payroll deductions for political activities.” §49-5-608(a)(7), (b)(6)” and payroll deductions are always permitted, so long as they are not for political activities.


  1.  Addresses the Issue of Government Picking Winners & Losers: This creates a level playing field for all Professional Employee Organizations on the issue of payroll deduction and separates the operations of government from partisan politics.
  2. Protects ALL Teachers: Guarantees fairness to all 80,000+ educators in our state, now and in the future.
  3. Advances Personal Flexibility: Teachers themselves would make the ultimate decision of which – if any, organization to join.
  4. Protects Union Members: It will require unions to be more responsive to the needs of their members or risk losing them and help guarantee payroll deductions are not for political activities.
  5. Brings Clarity to the Payroll Deduction Issue: Senate Bill 404 and House Bill 356 would bring much needed clarity to the issue of payroll deduction, but does not create any new burdens on LEAs. The school district does not have any more increased obligation to employees exercising payroll deduction. It is permissive.

If you would like to help on Senate Bill 404/House Bill 356, the Equal Rights for Teachers Bill contact your state legislator.  Tell them to give ALL Teachers the same rights on payroll deductions.  Our organization Professional Educators of Tennessee is non-partisan.  We do not endorse political candidates nor do we fund them.  Also you can contact Chairman of House Finance Representative Charles Sargent, as well as all the members of the House Finance Committee.



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