Episode 86: Giving Public Sector Workers Their Individual Voices Back

Michael Schaus

Free to Offend Episode 86| Guest: Isabel Blank, AFFT 

Many of the biggest public sector unions actually spend more money on political activity than they do on their core mission of representing workers. No wonder so many public sector workers don’t feel like they actually have a voice.

After all, the union certainly isn’t always fighting on their behalf.

Isabel Blank, the senior communications director at Americans for Fair Treatment, joined the program to discuss how public sector workers can reclaim their voice when their union starts putting its own concerns over that of its members.

Read the Transcript

Isabel Blank: You have districts that almost have half of their membership not in a union, yet they’re still forced to be represented by them in their collective bargaining agreements. And that just seems un- American.

Michael Schaus: This is Free to Offend. I’m your host, Michael Schaus. Several years ago, there was a Supreme Court case known as the Janus decision. And basically, what it said is that no public sector worker ever has to financially support their workplace union if they don’t want to.

So, we of course in Nevada are right to work state, which means that we kind of always had this right. If you are a school teacher, for example, you don’t have to belong to the union, and if you decide to opt out, you don’t have to send them ” agency fees” or anything. If you don’t want to give money to your workplace union, you don’t have to.

However, there’s still a problem here. If you are a public sector employee and you decide to opt out of your workplace union, what happens next? The problem is many workers feel like they’re isolated, like they have no voice. They’re left completely out of the process because the union continues to go ahead and organize and create contracts with your government employer and everything. And you don’t have really any voice in the process, right?

Well, not exactly. I want to welcome our guest, Isabel Blank. She’s the senior communications director at Americans for Fair Treatment, which is great organization. The way they describe themselves is a community of current and former public sector employees offering resources and support to exercise their first amendment rights. And we’ll get into exactly what that means here in a minute.

But Isabel, thank you so much for joining us.

Isabel Blank: Thank you for having me.

Michael Schaus: So, what exactly is AFFT? I mean, what do you guys really do? What do you focus on? And why do you consider yourself needed?

Isabel Blank: AFFT is a membership organization. So, all of our members are public employees. We also have an ally membership program that anyone can join. But the meat of our membership is public employees.

And what we do is we work with them to empower them and elevate their voices when their unions fail to do that. So, most of our membership have left their union because they feel that their union does not speak for them effectively, doesn’t support them, and we’re here to do that in, in lieu of the unions.

Michael Schaus: Yeah, and this is a cause that’s near and dear to our heart here in Nevada and certainly at Nevada Policy. We’ve been for years trying to help especially teachers, but really all public sector employees know what their rights are when it comes to unionization. It’s difficult if you were a teacher in Nevada, for example, to opt out of your union membership. You’ve got one week in the middle of summer and what have you.

There’s an ongoing dispute between the union and the Clark County School District. A lot of teachers don’t feel that they’re being represented adequately by their union. And they do have a right to leave if they don’t like their union, but it’s very difficult for folks.

Is that kind of where you guys are, are focused as, hey, let me help you exercise your first amendment rights. And if you are happy with the union, fine. But if not, let me give you a voice basically.

Isabel Blank: Definitely. So, union membership can be great for some people. They love their union, and they think they get a lot out of it. And that’s great for them. But it’s not the case for everyone. And so, we help those people who don’t feel supported by their union leave their union. Like you said, in a lot of cases that can be difficult. There’re windows for resignation in a lot of states. And that can be hard to navigate when it’s not your full-time job; your full-time job is to be a teacher or a municipal employee or a state employee.

So having to navigate the complicated legal system when it comes to union membership can be really hard. So, we definitely support employees who want to leave their union and are having trouble doing that.

We help make sure they really get out of the union. Sometimes people can send in their letter outside of that window that you mentioned, and they don’t realize that they didn’t get in the window at the right time, and so they didn’t get to leave. So, we’ll help them with that.

And then on the other hand, we help people who’ve left their union years ago, even if they had no problems, really get their voice heard. And we help connect them to opportunities in their state or at the national level to talk about their experiences with their unions. We have some really outspoken members that help other people leave the unions in their state. They Help show them that, you know, they’re not living under a bridge, they can leave their union, and they’re just totally fine.

Michael Schaus: Yeah, and you don’t have to be all by yourself. Now, you know, we explained this as a First Amendment issue, and obviously this goes back to the Janus case, which said, ” All public sector employees, if you don’t like how your union is representing you, you have the first amendment right to leave that union.”

Explain to me how this is a first amendment right. Because I think most people look at union membership and they don’t directly draw a line to how this relates to freedom of speech.

Isabel Blank: Definitely. And I have to say, I’m not a lawyer. I have to say that first.

Michael Schaus: I know neither am I. I don’t even play one on TV.

Isabel Blank: But in my non lawyer layman’s terms, I think a huge part of that is how political unions are. So, we actually just released our series we do annually called Where Your Dues Go. And we look at the spending that different unions- national unions and also some state level unions- what their spending is. And a huge portion of that spending is on politics. It’s partisan politics.

A lot of it doesn’t even have to do with issues impacting the people that they’re representing. And I think that’s a huge part of what makes this a First Amendment issue because political spending is speech. And so, when your union is spending all sorts of money on political issues that you disagree with, that’s a problem.

Michael Schaus: Yeah. And especially when you’re talking about public sector unions. If you are a public sector worker, your boss is the government obviously. And so really anything that they’re doing as a public sector union is going to be somewhat political in nature, but as you point out, oftentimes it strays far from political issues that might directly impact you.

So, your teacher’s union might be spending money on political activity, partisan issues that are not directly related to education. What are some of the examples that you guys have seen in the series when you’re talking about where union dues are actually going?

Isabel Blank: And just to take that a step further, when you’re looking at the government as an employer, all those dues are coming from government money. So, it’s an even deeper layer, really, when you’re talking about public employee unions compared to private unions.

So, I think everyone knows about the teachers unions. I feel like they’re in the news a lot and they’re spending, and they have some really controversial leadership that have a lot of things to say. So, we cover the NEA and AFT. We also covered SEIU, which has been in the news a lot lately with the Starbucks unionization stuff.

So, I think one of the things that stands out a lot to me is NEA’s political spending. So, they actually spend more money on politics than they do on membership representation.

Michael Schaus: That is wild. I mean, I hate to interrupt there for a second, but when you really think about it, that’s basically what the entire Janus case was about, you know, when Mark Janus said I don’t like the way that my dues are being spent on political activity.

That’s wild. If you think about a union that’s spending more money on politics than it is on what its core function is supposed to be, which is representing you, the worker.

Isabel Blank: Absolutely. And something that we’ve seen is a lot of politicians and I think that’s changing slowly, but even Republicans, take the union’s word as they’re representing teachers or they’re representing whatever group they’re supposed to be representing because that’s what they’re supposed to be doing.

But when you look at the numbers, you can really see where their priorities lie, and it looks like their priorities lie in political influence and money.

Michael Schaus: Yeah, and we see the consequence of that, obviously, when it comes to public policy. It’s something that we talk about a lot, the power of unions just in general, but especially public sector unions. And it creates a really weird dynamic if you are a public sector employee. There are cases where you would think just kind of by the nature of unionization that the union would, you know, we kind of what we see with the teachers union and the school district right now would be at odds with the ” employer” when it comes to government. But there are oftentimes where they’re not really at odds because they’re helping elect their own bosses basically.

And as a consequence, there are times when public sector workers really don’t have a voice because you’ve got the union and the district or the government employer saying, yeah, we’re basically on the same side.

Isabel Blank: Definitely. And I mean, whether it’s purposefully and actual neglect or not, we’ve had cases where our members have gone to their administrators at their school, for example, asking for a contract that has just been negotiated or something like that. And the administration says, “Oh, we don’t know. Ask your union,” even though they’re no longer a union member.

So, we see this where the government is kind of using the union as a sort of like administrative helper. Not to say that it’s purposely hurting these employees. I think they’re using them just like background work, helpful administrative work, but you can see that can hurt an employee who isn’t in their union or isn’t feeling supported by their union.

Michael Schaus: And that’s kind of a worrisome part. That’s why I like that organizations such as yours exist out there because I’ve heard, and I’ve talked to public sector workers that have been thinking about maybe leaving their union because they’re not happy with the way that their union spends money on political causes or maybe they just don’t feel like the union’s done a good job of representing them.

Sometimes their biggest objection they tell me is if I leave the union, I have virtually no voice. You know, they kind of remain with the union because at least they can feel like they’re doing something, vote on union leadership or something, whereas when they leave, they feel like they’re all by themselves. But they really aren’t. I mean, they still have first amendment rights. They still should have the ability to, as you point out, contact the district, and say, “hey, what’s going on here” and actually get answers. So, they need some sort of support in order to do that.

Isabel Blank: Definitely. And that’s what AFFT does for public employees. I think the union makes it a point to make people feel like they’ll be alone without the union. That’s in their messaging all the time, and it’s clearly effective.

We actually have a member who felt really isolated after she left her union. And I remember we had a call with her, and she was talking about how isolated she felt. She thought she was the only person in her district who wasn’t in the union. And we were able to quickly look up in our system to find that we had several other AFFT members in her district. They just needed us to connect them.

So, I think the union really tries to isolate people when they’re not necessarily alone in their feelings.

Michael Schaus: So where are you guys focused right now. Do you have members all over the United States? Are you guys mostly in just a handful of states? I mean, where do you guys see a lot of activity when it comes to your membership?

Isabel Blank: So, we do have members all over the country. We’re not in every state, but we’re in most states. And we’re open to members applying from any state. We do primarily work in Pennsylvania, New York, and Connecticut. We started in the Northeast and we’re slowly expanding. But we can help people all over the country. We just focus primarily in those three states.

Michael Schaus: I’ll tell you what, there’s a real need for it, too. I remember even a couple of years ago, we were looking at the Clark County School District, which is the school district mostly in Las Vegas, and it’s the fifth largest in the nation. And almost half of their teachers don’t actually belong to the union.

That’s a lot of folks who have decided that that union is not doing right by them. And to the point that we were just saying, even though it’s almost half of the workforce, most of those teachers don’t have any voice. Like they’re not being heard right now as the union is negotiating the contract with the district.

And it’s got to be frustrating for folks and it feels kind of isolating. And I think it’s one of the things that’s often overlooked when we talk about unionization, especially in the public sector. People don’t think about just how coercive it’s been in the past and how kind of disenfranchised you feel as a worker, regardless of whether or not you have a union. You feel like you don’t have an individual voice and it’s got to be almost more frustrating than working in a non-union shop or a non-unionized government role where everybody’s out there talking to their boss and perfectly fine and you don’t have that, “oh, go talk to your union.”

Isabel Blank: Yeah, definitely. And that’s something that our members in states like Pennsylvania and Connecticut that are heavily unionized they talk about when they talk to our members in places like Virginia that are really just starting to unionize. That’s the main thing that concerns them and concerns the people that we’ve talked to and in these newly unionizing states.

You lose your individual voice because of exclusive representation. I think a lot of people who aren’t as dialed into this aren’t aware of exclusive representation. But like you said, you have districts that almost have half of their membership not in a union. Yet they’re still forced to be represented by them in their collective bargaining agreements. And that just seems un-American. I think to most people, that’s not okay.

I know that there’s some court cases floating around that would potentially challenge exclusive representation, but at least so far, that hasn’t happened yet. But I think it really is a problem that that a regular person can see is not a good thing.

Michael Schaus: Yeah. And this is a policy issue that we’ve talked about before. At first it sounds kind of wonky, but there’s the Janus decision saying all public sector workers don’t have to belong to a union. Because previously certain states like Illinois, for example, if they aren’t a right to work states, if you worked in a unionized portion of government, you had to pay at least agency fees to that union, and now that’s no longer the case.

You can say, I don’t want to give any money to this union because I don’t feel like they’re representing me correctly. But, to your point, they still negotiate the terms of your contract. And you are still stuck with whatever contract they decide to hash out with the government.

The idea of worker’s choice being a policy that says, “look, okay, unions can negotiate on behalf of union members, but everybody else would have the freedom to negotiate directly,” that’s something. Is that something that you guys are focused on as well and some of your members are hopefully focused on and looking at trying to promote and make a little bit more of widely known policy option?

Isabel Blank: So, we don’t really lobby. What we do is we help our members work on issues that they’re interested in. So, a couple years ago in Pennsylvania, there was a great bundle of bills that was working its way through the legislature. And one portion of that would allow for a recertification election. I think it was every 3 years how the bill was written.

But that would allow a union to be reelected or decertified on a regular basis which would, you know, strengthen the union arguably. It would force the union to have to serve its members because it was up for a vote every certain number of years.

Most employees have never voted on the union that represents them. They’re stuck with whatever was voted on decades ago. And unless they get a really organized campaign going to decertify their union, they’re never going to have the chance to choose which union represents them.

So that’s a bill that some of our members testified on in the Pennsylvania in front of the house labor committee a couple years ago. And we’ve seen other similar bills in different states. And that’s something that most of our members are really supportive of and would love to see. For most people, that would strengthen unions and help them serve their members better.

And I think, just like the issue with exclusive representation to a regular person, that’s democracy, right? That’s American. That’s what we want in a system.

Michael Schaus: I mean, we vote on our elected representatives every couple of years. It’s wild to me.

I know a few years ago, we took a look at the Clark County School District and determined how many people actually belong to the union. And then we took a look at of all those people that belong to the union, how many were actually around when the Clark County Education Association was certified as the exclusive bargaining agent.

Out of tens of thousands of teachers, literally two people were there when it was originally certified. And that’s just mind blowing to me that all these new teachers just inherit this and never have a chance to say with a vote, say, Hey, this union is doing good, or this union is not doing well when it comes to meeting our needs.

If people want to find out more about what AFFT does, where can they go to learn a little bit more? Or if they’re a public sector employee, where can they go to actually join?

Isabel Blank: Whether you’re a public sector employee or not, you can learn more at our website. It’s AFFT.org.

If you’re a public sector employee, we have a membership program that you can sign up for. There’s a short application. You’re also welcome to join as an ally member if you’re not a public employee. We have all sorts of resources on our website for public employees or what I’ll call allies of public employees who want to learn more about how we can help support them.

Michael Schaus: Yeah, and you guys have an excellent section too, which is just worth checking out, the member spotlight where you guys pick certain members and kind of tell their story and the reason why they’re interested in this. And there are some fascinating reads in there.

Isabel Blank: Thank you. Yeah, that’s probably my favorite section. So, thank you for that shout out.

Michael Schaus: Well Isabel, thank you so much. We really appreciate it. And we appreciate you taking the time.

Isabel Blank: Thank you so much for having me.

Michael Schaus: Again, Isabel Blank, Senior Communications Director at Americans for Fair Treatment.

And, you know, we kind of were touching on something there right at the conversation. Even for those out there who like public sector unions, I mean, obviously I’ve got my own issues with public sector unions. We’ve discussed many, many, many, many of them here on this program before. I think that politically the incentives are all wrong and they don’t really fight. I mean, look at the teachers union, for example. The teachers union is not fighting to better the child sitting in that classroom. They’re fighting for their ” members” and their political interests. That’s the reason why they oppose with tooth and nail any sort of educational freedom or educational options. So, I’ve got my own political issues with public sector.

That being said, this is the world in which we live. Teachers unions, for example, exist. Police unions, which consistently fight against any sort of decent criminal justice reform, they exist. So, with that, let’s look at the actual system, and the really sad thing, and what we were starting to touch on there at the end of the conversation is, even for those who like unions, the current system is completely broken.

If you are a teacher, whether you want to be a part of the union or not, you have no individual voice. If you are a teacher right now and you’re working in Clark County, you cannot look at the state of the Clark County School District and think, oh yeah, the union that has been exclusively representing us for the last several decades has done a bang-up job making sure life is good for teachers.

You know, the current system clearly does not work. I mean, yes, CCSD is a mess, but so is the CCEA. And the fact that these teachers, those who have left the union and those who currently still belong to the union never have any opportunity for, say, a recertification vote is amazing.

But imagine if you were a teacher just working in a classroom, in a school that’s got hundreds or maybe thousands of vacancies, and you’re looking around going, “is anybody really representing me? Is that union that has failed to achieve any of their goals in the last several decades actually somehow going to make my life better right now?”

And if you don’t feel like they are, what do you do about it? You know, the current system, the way that we’ve got public sector unions set up, the way that you have no individual agency, if you leave the union, you’re still beholden to their union contracts, it really is a broken system.

And so, groups like Americans for Fair Treatment are fantastic organizations because we need more groups out there that are speaking on behalf of public sector workers that are not themselves part of the problem, which would be the public sector employee unions.

Hey, thank you so much for listening today. Be sure to go to nevadapolicy.org/podcast. You can sign up for the podcast and you can also let us know if you think that there is a topic or a guest that we ought to have on the show. Again, thank you so much for listening. This has been Free to Offend.

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 Free to Offend:
A podcast that radically defends free speech by regularly practicing it.

Produced by Nevada Policy Research Institute,
featuring Nevada Policy’s Michael Schaus.