21st Century Unionism Starting in Central Washington


Change comes slowly in the world of education, but central Washington schoolteachers are embracing a revolutionary new change - they are taking back control of their profession.


Nearly all teachers in the state of Washington are stuck in a decades-old approach to workplace representation. The decision to invite a union to be their voice in district decision-making happened forty or fifty years ago. The teachers who made that decision retired long ago, but the organization collecting sixty million dollars a year trudges on. 


Only one union, the Washington Education Association (WEA), has the sole franchise of teacher representation. Like all monopolies, its flaws grow unchecked by competition. Enterprises, which do not have to earn payment, tend to overcharge and they tend to focus on the agenda of the leaders. This is true of those operating the teachers union.


The union dues for teachers in Washington have increased until they now average $1,030 each year. Nearly all of the money leaves the local community, and a fifth of it is sent off to Washington, D.C. to the National Education Association. 


The organization has also grown more disconnected from the desires of teachers, and is increasingly fixated on the political and ideological agenda of the union's executives. The tenor of their politics grows more strident as the union leadership attracts like-minded folks while repelling those with a different view.


Professional educators should be part of guiding local schools, and workers sometimes need a workplace advocate. But the union has packaged extensive politicking, marketing and Left-wing activism with these basic workplace needs of educators.


Refusing to pay is not an option in most school union contracts in Washington. Holding the union accountable is difficult for members who have full-time professional careers as educators. In addition to the multi-millions of dollars the union has to repel any criticism, it has a staff of hundreds who are committed to the preservation of the union business model as their top priority.


The rules allowing public sector unions to exist stack the deck to strengthen the financial security of the union operators. Like a true monopoly, unions can even prevent employees from getting workplace help at their own expense. The law allows a union's right to the franchise to continue unabated without any subsequent process of renewal. If teachers are interested in finding another provider of the workplace services, the law only allows consideration during June every few years.


Although the law and the union power have protected the dominance of the union business model for decades, that dominance is starting to crack in Central Washington.


In the Mansfield, Waterville, Sprague and St. John school districts, teachers have broken free of the expensive gigantic union. They followed the process for calling for an election and voting out the WEA, and they each created their own local independent teachers association.


As Waterville Teachers Leadership Council President Justin Grillo noted, "If we are going to tell kids that they need to be responsible for themselves, then we need to model that." 


The Mansfield Professional Educators president, Ric Bayless, explained how it came about. "We discussed our concerns, our profession, our vision for our students, and our community.  The teachers unanimously supported the creation of an association that would allow administration, board members and teachers to work together to mutually advance the interests of students and the professionalism of educators." 


Educators in Central Washington have several qualities, which might explain this new phenomenon.


First, small communities are not conducive to the increasingly combative approach of the WEA. In recent years the union has been engaging in confrontation, pressure campaigns and hard line bargaining leading to strikes. In a close-knit community, these tactics make much less sense. 


Second, the WEA efforts on behalf of the various causes of the Left are not commonly supported in Central Washington.


Third, the independence and self-sufficiency of rural Washingtonians are values, which make it easier for educators to accept taking on the responsibility for their own representation.


The benefits were immediate for these four organizations. The most valuable was the opportunity self-governance allows for teachers to reflect on their profession and to reclaim their role as professionals. This improves relationships with their district and restores the focus of school decisions on students rather than employees. 


The fact that $627 of their union dues does not get sent off to the WEA and NEA has advantages too. 


Those organizations that want to invest in their own communities with scholarships or other school investments have the capacity to do so. Educators who want additional professional services can shop and join groups like the Northwest Professional Educators, which provides outstanding professional and legal liability protection services.


Perhaps the nationwide union monolith is starting to crack, as it grows more expensive and estranged from everyday educators like those in Central Washington. These teachers are the vanguard of a new generation of sensible, locally-controlled unionism for the 21st century.


Jami Lund is the Senior Policy Analyst for the Freedom Foundation, an activist organization in Olympia seeking individual liberty, free enterprise and limited government. He can be reached at jlund@myfreedomfoundation.com


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