Ray Carter | March 5, 2021
Measure to protect teachers’ free-speech rights advances
Oklahoma schools would be required to get explicit authorization from teachers every year before withholding union dues under legislation that has passed the Oklahoma Senate.
Supporters said the bill complies with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31, and ensures the free-speech rights of school employees are prioritized.
“As the First Amendment right is critically important and a foundational right of individual liberty, I think it is best to take that portion of the decision and make sure to protect the First Amendment rights of these public-school employees,” said Sen. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville.
Senate Bill 634, by Daniels, requires schools to get annual reauthorization for dues withholding from employees.
Under the bill, teachers or other school employees joining a union would have to sign a form each year that states, “I am aware that I have a First Amendment right, as recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court, to refrain from joining and paying dues or making political contributions to a professional employee organization. I further realize that membership and payment of dues or political contributions are voluntary and that I may not be discriminated against for my refusal to join or financially support a professional employee organization. I hereby authorize my employer to deduct dues and/or political contributions from my salary in the amounts specified in accordance with my professional employee organization’s bylaws. I understand that I may revoke this authorization at any time.”
School districts would also have to confirm the authorization by separately contacting the employee via email.
Should a school employee notify a school that he or she is terminating payroll deductions to a union, the legislation also prevents the union from accruing any new debt from the employee.
In its Janus decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, “… States and public-sector unions may no longer extract agency fees from nonconsenting employees. The First Amendment is violated when money is taken from nonconsenting employees for a public-sector union; employees must choose to support the union before anything is taken from them. Accordingly, neither an agency fee nor any other form of payment to a public-sector union may be deducted from an employee, nor may any other attempt be made to collect such a payment, unless the employee affirmatively consents to pay.”
Opponents said the legislation is unnecessary and unwanted by teacher union members.
“The people who this would affect, they do not want this,” said Sen. J.J. Dossett, D-Owasso.
“This is very demoralizing to teachers,” said Sen. Mary Boren, D-Norman, who said the legislation could lead to “passion fatigue” among educators.
Sen. Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, argued the Janus decision was “very narrow” and did not require any changes to state law.
“The changes that have been proposed are unnecessary based on the Supreme Court case,” Floyd said.
The Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), the state affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA), tweeted in opposition to the bill, declaring, “Out-of-state interests are pushing this membership red tape to stop #oklaed from organizing!” An accompanying graphic said SB 634 “specifically targets collective power” and “descriminates against educators and support staff.” (Spelling error in original.)
Boren defended the work of teachers’ unions, although she acknowledged that their work has upset many families this year.
“I understand that collective-bargaining units, especially teachers, have been targeted for lots of criticism, especially in the middle of COVID where we’re at,” Boren said. “They’ve had a lot of criticism and blame for shutting our schools. I totally understand that.”
But supporters said the legislation bolsters the power of many teachers who do not want to support the political agenda of major teacher unions.
“We should respect teachers who may have a different political ideology than the group that they are forced to do their collective bargaining with if they choose to join a union in their school district,” said Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City.
He noted that OEA dues support its NEA parent, which has explicitly supported abortion without restrictions under the banner of “reproductive justice” and claimed opposition to abortion is driven by “misogynistic forces.”
The American Federation of Teachers has similarly supported abortion and Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, declaring opposition to both to be the product of “extremist groups.”
“Many of my constituents may belong to OEA. They may belong to AFT,” Treat said. “And they are tremendous teachers. They are tremendous educators, dedicated. But they don’t share the belief of these national organizations.”
One lawmaker noted that the current process leaves teachers feeling exposed to potential union retribution.
“I’ve actually had teachers in my district that have reached out and said that they felt discriminated against because they asked for a waiver to opt out,” said Sen. Jessica Garvin, R-Duncan.
Daniels said the legislation is pro-teacher and pro-free speech.
“We should never be demoralized by supporting the First Amendment,” Daniels said. “It’s not an insult to somebody to say, ‘Your individual liberty is so important that we are going to add this extra step for your employer to take to make sure that your First Amendment rights are protected.’”
Senate Bill 634 passed the Oklahoma Senate on a 25-21 vote. All those in support were Republicans, while another 12 Republicans joined Democrats in opposition.
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.