DEERFIELD, Kansas – It’s easy for school employees to join a labor union.
Take up a petition, have a quick vote (which may not even be necessary if they use “card check” tactics), then start paying your dues.
But it can be a lot more difficult for a group of teachers to get out of a union. Just ask the staff of the tiny Deerfield, Kansas school district.
Last summer over half of the teachers in the district signed a petition to drop the National Education Association as their bargaining representative. The petition was sent to the Kansas Department of Labor, then the teachers waited, and waited, and waited, and waited some more.
Part of the holdup was the clunky bureaucracy at the Department of Labor. Slow government agencies are a fact of life and their deficiencies must be anticipated.
But the other problem was the NEA, which threw up roadblocks at every turn to prevent the teachers from getting the chance to vote on decertification, according to the teacher who led the petition drive.
Union officials questioned whether the teachers had met the legal deadline for decertification. They questioned whether the petition had enough signatures. They even questioned the legitimacy of the attorney representing the teachers.
Finally, after months of frustration, the Deerfield teachers have received a response from Department of Labor. A decertification election will take place no later than May 14, and the results will be certified immediately.
Finally freedom is within striking distance.
‘It’s a lot of money’
Joel McClure, the teacher who led the decertification effort, is in his fourth year at Deerfield.
He says the teachers have been represented by the NEA for decades, but the district has never been a hotbed of union activity or sympathy.
“In my time here, I can’t remember more than 10 teachers being union members,” said McClure, who added that Kansas is a right-to-work state and union membership is not required.
Serious discussion about dumping the union started last summer, and it took very little time to get a majority of teachers to sign the petition, McClure told EAGnews. Fifteen of the 27 educators on staff were more than happy to affix their signatures, he said.
There are various reasons for the discontent with the union in Deerfield, according to McClure. The political activities of the NEA have been a big turnoff for some.
“I’ve heard from a lot of teachers who don’t want to support social and political causes they don’t subscribe to,” McClure said.
But the biggest issue is the cost of union membership, according to McClure. Union dues are nearly $600 per year, and “that’s a lot of money,” he said.
There were concerns about what teachers would do in different situations without union protection, but nobody could think of any instances when the union had come through for teachers at key moments.
“You look around for evidence – show me where this has happened where the NEA has stepped in and rescued teachers from horrible situations,” McClure said. “For those who were postulating about those possibilities, they should provide evidence of how the NEA is so great. Nobody is coming forward.”
For McClure and several of his colleagues, the real answer came when they discovered the Association of American Educators, a professional association that provides insurance, legal representation and other services to teachers while charging much less than union dues.
“Even as far back as college, you have the NEA giving you free t-shirts and pens, and ingraining in future teachers the idea that the union should be a vital part of the teaching experience,” said McClure, who has joined the AAE. “Most people don’t realize there are other alternatives.”
‘Let them have their say so’
McClure sent the teachers’ decertification petition to the Kansas Department of Labor in late November of 2012.
He waited for weeks to hear a response, then finally called the agency in January. For some reason the documents sat around without being acted upon, and officials asked McClure to resubmit his materials.
Then the NEA got in the act, throwing out objection after objection, McClure said.
One objection was sort of understandable. Union officials were under the impression that the state did not receive the petition until January, and thought the teachers had missed the Dec. 1 deadline to file for decertification.
Luckily the Department of Labor had the original paperwork which was received on Nov. 27, according to McClure.
Then the union raised objections about the attorney representing the Deerfield teachers, because she wasn’t certified to practice law in Kansas. But the Labor Department ruled that the attorney could legitimately represent the teachers.
NEA officials even suggested that the petition lacked the signatures of 30 percent of the teaching staff, which is the minimum necessary to force a decertification vote, McClure said. But 15 signatures out of 27 teachers represent far more than 30 percent.
The union roadblocks grew tiring for McClure and the other teachers, who were eager to complete the process they started.
“Obviously it’s not in the union’s best interest for this to happen,” he said “They don’t want other schools to know this is a possibility. They kind of have a vested interest in not allowing something like this to happen.”
Once the union hurdles were cleared, the teachers found themselves waiting for months for the Department of Labor to schedule a decertification election, McClure said.
The long wait prompted McClure to pen a letter to the editor of a local newspaper, expressing his frustration.
“We are facing the end of the school year and teachers are left in limbo about who will represent their interests in negotiations with the administration,” McClure wrote. “It is clearly an effort to prevent teachers from exercising their right to decide who they want to represent them.”
Finally McClure learned that the process was stalled due to the illness of a Department of Labor staffer who was handling the case. This week he learned that the election will take place by the middle of next month, and the voice of the majority will carry the day.
“We had no answers as to why this was being delayed,” McClure said. “We were thinking that the NEA was behind a lot of this (continued delay), but it turns out there were some unforeseen circumstances at the Department of Labor.
“Just let the teachers speak. If they’re happy with the NEA, they will vote that. If they prefer an alternative, they will vote that way. Let them have their say so.”