What’s it like to be an educator in a so-called “right-to-work” (RTW) state? You have less power to advocate for student learning conditions and educator working conditions. Take April Miller, an Arizona educator who had 35 second graders crammed into her classroom—energetic 7- and 8-year-olds with 35 different personalities and learning abilities who Miller had to teach with absolutely no support. Arizona is a right-to-work state.
Maria Turner used to be a full-time teacher until Wisconsin passed right-to-work legislation, where they took away the right to bargain just about everything. Her full-time job turned into a part-time job with no benefits. She was offered a year-to-year contract with no security, and no hope of building seniority or gaining tenure.
“I left my friends and family for a new position out of state,” Turner says.
Michigan educator Sara Sweat Ziegler says right-to-work laws weakens her ability to bargain with the state not only for pay raises and benefits, but also for funds for school supplies and for small class sizes.
“People don’t think that we are bargaining on behalf of our students,” Ziegler told Current TV. “This decision [to pass right-to-work legislation] just makes us weak.”
Ziegler is correct—“right-to-work” laws are propagated by those seeking to weaken unions, and despite the name, the laws actually limit rights. The truth is, everyone has the right to refuse to join a union in the public sector. But each person that benefits directly from union representation should pay their fair share of the cost of that representation. It’s called an agency fee—the amount a nonmember pays to the union for the services that nonmember receives for things like bargaining for better learning conditions or grievance handling.
Agency fees are outlawed by “right-to-work” legislation, thereby weakening the union, silencing the collective voice of employees, and extinguishing their ability to negotiate for better learning and working conditions. Unless there is a strong local association made up of active members, the fate of educators is left to the whim of administrators and school boards—and their often politically motivated decisions on everything from curriculum to salaries.
Proponents of right-to-work laws claim that they boost the economy by attracting businesses, but right-to-work laws lower wages—for both union and nonunion workers alike—by an average of $1,500 per year, after accounting for the cost of living in each state. These laws also decrease the chances of employees getting either health insurance or pensions through their jobs— again, for both union and nonunion workers. And by cutting wages, right-to-work laws threaten to undermine job growth by reducing the discretionary income people have to spend. Every $1 million in wage cuts translates into an additional six jobs lost in the economy.
When a right-to-work law passed in Oklahoma, state legislators promised companies would relocate to the state because of it and there would be more jobs available. Ten years later, jobs fell by 25 percent and the number of companies moving into the state dropped by 33 percent, according to economist Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute.
Public education also takes a hit in RTW states. The laws drive away good teachers who move to other states with lower class sizes, better salaries and benefits, and more job security.
School funding suffers, too. States with “right-to-work” laws spend $3,392 less per pupil on elementary and secondary education. And without the ability to bargain for better teaching and learning conditions, academic achievement declines. The majority of states with RTW laws are among the lowest performing in the nation.
The scenarios beg this question: If RTW laws are so bad for education, why don’t more education professionals teaching in right-to-work states flock to the union and voluntarily pay dues to bargain for better learning and teaching conditions? The answer? When states balance their budgets on the backs of education, educators feel the pinch in their ever-shrinking pay checks. They have tough financial choices to make, and paying dues might not make it into the equation.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t factor in the long view, which is if more educators joined the union, it would have the power to fight for and win higher salaries. A stronger union can also lower class sizes and create better learning environments for students, which is just as high on an educator’s list of priorities as salary and benefits.
In right-to-work states like Virginia, local NEA affiliates have work constructively and successfully on behalf of members to address learning and working conditions. It’s not bargaining, which public sector employees are forbidden to do there, it’s referred to as “meet and confer” and it has a powerful impact. But none of it would happen without strength. When right-to-work and other attacks on collective bargaining threaten the quality of education, the adage “there’s strength in numbers” holds true.
As President Obama said during the battle over the law in Michigan, RTW will “take away your right to bargain for better wages” and give you the “right-to-work for less money.” That’s why educators need to band together to strengthen their union, and to work to prevent or repeal RTW legislation.
Photo: Working Michigan