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Paying unions: Recurring opt-in requirements protect public workers

Editor’s note: The Bluegrass Beacon is a weekly syndicated newspaper column posted on the Bluegrass Institute’s website after appearing in publications statewide.

In 2017, the Kentucky General Assembly passed House Bill 1 to protect workers in the private sector from being fired for not paying union dues.

The bill is vital in protecting employees’ First Amendment rights to not be coerced into joining or supporting – via dues’ dollars – radical political views they personally oppose but their unions back.

The following year, the U.S. Supreme Court expanded constitutional protections to public workers, ruling that teachers and other government employees could no longer be forced to pay union fees.

Plaintiff Mark Janus, a child support specialist at the Illinois Department of Healthcare Services, had been forced to pay thousands of dollars in fees to a government union just to keep his job of helping children caught up in their parents’ divorce.

Ironically, teachers in Kentucky already had right-to-work protections before the legislation passed in 2017 offering similar safeguards to private-sector workers.

However, as I write this during National Employee Freedom Week, I wonder how many of them know that union membership isn’t required to get or keep a teaching job in the Bluegrass State?

It’s likely most Kentucky teachers also think their dues are used primarily for local union representation even though many of those dollars get sent to the state and national teachers’ unions with only a relatively small amount invested in representing and assisting members locally, or at any level for that matter.

According to the National Education Association’s LM-2 form, which all public and private unions with at least $250,000 in revenue must file showing how their dollars are dispersed, the union spent only $32 million – or 8.5% -- out of the $377 million it raked in from dues and agency fees during 2021 on members’ representational needs.

The NEA spent more in 2021 on union officials’ “benefits” ($57 million), “general overhead” ($61 million) and even “union administration” ($34 million) than on representing its members ($32 million).

It also shelled out $66 million for “political activities and lobbying” and $117.8 million on “contributions, gifts and grants,” which were primarily politically targeted.

Much of the political spending is used to encourage and support ideologically aligned politicians in opposing badly needed reforms to public education such as addressing tenure policies, offering performance-based merit pay and alternatives to traditional public education like charter schools and tax-credit programs.

A big chunk of those “dues and agency fees” also are used to advance controversial curriculum like critical race theory, divisive bathroom practices and abortion policies that go against the wishes of parents and communities.

There’s little incentive currently for teachers’ unions in Kentucky to ensure members understand that by joining the union, they in essence waive their First Amendment rights and fund political speech or campaigns with which they may disagree.

Also, for far too long, it’s been assumed that employees who become union members do so permanently unless they take the initiative to opt out.

However, the Supreme Court has ruled in multiple cases that an initial waiving of rights doesn’t mean they’re waived forever.

Many teachers in Kentucky have laid aside their First Amendment rights by allowing the deduction of union dues from their paychecks to support political causes and politicians they don’t even know about, much less favor.

As they learn more about how those dollars are spent, teachers should be able to opt out of that trap.

Some states are stepping up their efforts to both ensure that public workers know their rights and unions regularly confirm – some annually – that their members want to continue waiving them.

Kentucky should follow suit to ensure strong labor-freedom protections for its public employees, just like it has done for private workers.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free market think tank. Reach him at and @bipps on Twitter.

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