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Colorado Teachers Should Know Their Rights to Leave the Union

Busy back-to-school days present the only chance for many teachers to leave the union. But they can’t exercise the right if, like many Colorado workers, they don’t know it exists.

Colorado K-12 teachers may join a union at any time, but burdensome schemes restrain their ability to leave. In many districts, members who wish to leave the union can only do so during a brief, locally prescribed window of time. Greeley teachers can only exercise this option by contacting the union during the month of September. Poudre School District in Fort Collins also doesn’t allow teacher opt-outs after Sept. 30. Revocation periods in some districts are even shorter.

Denver teacher Ronda Reinhardt missed the union’s contractual fine print and tried to quit days after the 15-day opt-out window closed. She ended up waiting nearly an entire year and paying an additional $800 before having to visit the union office in person to fill out the required termination paperwork.

Employees in a handful of Colorado school districts face a more onerous arrangement. In Pueblo, non-union teachers and other employees who don’t want to pay the union must complete a revocation form at the union office or file a certified opt-out letter each year by Sept. 15.

Several years ago, non-union Pueblo school library technician Becky Robertson missed the September opt-out deadline. In addition to the busyness of a new school year, she was dealing with major medical issues and treatments for two immediate family members. Because of the hardship, Becky appealed to the union office for leniency. She was denied and stuck with paying a full year’s worth of union dues, without the benefits of membership.

About one in 10 Colorado workers belongs to a union. The ratio is higher among government employees and dramatically higher among K-12 public school teachers.

The third annual National Employee Freedom Week, which concludes Aug. 22, is designed “to inform union employees about the freedoms they have to opt out of union membership and let them make the decision that’s best for them.”

To commemorate the occasion last year, the Independence Institute placed a billboard in the heart of Pueblo to make sure school district employees were aware of their opt-out deadline. Rather than justify the policy, union leaders attacked the message as part of an effort “to destroy public education.”

Schools and learning can thrive without coercion. Likewise, Colorado educators deserve the right to free association. Unions and other groups should attract members by providing a needed service and adding value.

Many Colorado union members do not know they can quit and reduce or eliminate dues payments without fear of penalty. According to a new National Employee Freedom Week survey, nearly one-third of union household respondents were unaware they could stop financially supporting their unions, either in whole or in part.

Nationally, unions have secured the power to represent every worker in a given shop. As is available to Colorado teachers, 25 states’ right-to-work laws protect employees who choose not to join or finance a union from losing their jobs.

In most other states, all workers covered by collective bargaining are obligated to financially support the union. They may be able to request exemption from a portion of dues and pay agency fees instead.

Colorado occupies a unique middle ground between forced unionism and employee freedom. When voting on labor representation, most types of employees may force everyone in the workplace to pay the union either full dues or partial agency fees. But establishing such arrangements requires an extra super-majority election.

Consequently, some unionized Colorado employees who wish to end their membership can avoid any payment at all. Others only have access to a partial refund, if they know the option exists.

Compulsory agency fees may become obsolete if a band of California teachers triumphs next year in the U.S. Supreme Court. Lead plaintiff Rebecca Friedrichs, an elementary school teacher, does not want to pay any fees to a union she saw defend an abusive colleague. Others may object to union political spending that clashes with their religious or philosophical beliefs.

Even if the Friedrichs case succeeds, more needs to be done to ensure workers can enter or exit a labor organization without having to jump through hoops.

In the meantime, Colorado workers should learn about the membership options they already have.

Ben DeGrow (ben@i2i.org) is senior education policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a Denver-based free market think tank. This article originally appeared in the Greeley Tribune on August 20, 2015.