This article was published in OCPA's Perspective magazine View Issue
Helping teachers and students succeed is a goal we all share, a goal that matters most for Oklahoma’s most vulnerable young people. Getting public policy right in the area of education includes respecting teachers and freeing them from the shackles of old, outmoded systems.
One old system that is particularly unfair is the state law that gives private political organizations power to claim to represent teachers, whether they like it or not.
In Oklahoma, state law gives unions that power, even though voters adopted a right-to-work law in 2001. The law protects workers from being fired if they refuse to become union members and pay union dues. However, it does not allow workers who opt out of union membership to also avoid union representation.
Union executives claim this is necessary for efficiency. How could workers negotiate with management on their own? How could a workplace have multiple bargains for different employees? Of course, in many workplaces employees do stand on their own feet and work out their own deals.
The real absurdity of this situation is becoming clear in some Oklahoma school districts. Many were unionized long ago, before most current teachers or other staff were ever employed there. Since voters adopted the right-to-work law, many employees have opted out of those unions. But the unions mostly remain and continue to exercise power to represent all those public servants.
House Bill 1767, sponsored in 2017 by Rep. Todd Russ, would have let teachers and other education employees vote each year on whether to keep their union, look for a new union, or pass on union representation altogether.
Current state law allows workers to ask permission to hold such an election, but makes the process difficult in a way that benefits the union status quo. Just one example: Workers can only request an election during the month of February!
Rep. Russ’s bill would let teachers vote every five years to express their true feelings about union representation. Gov. Scott Walker included a similar measure in his package of union reforms in Wisconsin. And while some teachers there did vote to dissolve their unions, the measure also reaffirmed that some unions actually do what they say they do. About three-quarters of Wisconsin teacher unions were retained.
A statewide survey conducted last year asked likely Oklahoma voters: “Do you agree that Oklahoma school employees who are represented by a labor union should be allowed to vote every five years to decide whether they want to be represented by that union?” Not surprisingly, 67 percent of Oklahoma voters agree with this common-sense idea, while only 13 percent disagree.
Rep. Russ’s bill passed out of the General Government Oversight and Accountability Committee on March 2, 2017. It was never brought to a vote on the House floor.
That’s a shame, because Oklahoma union executives have nothing to fear from more democracy—as long as they are really representing the interests of workers.