An open letter to teachers from former AFT & AFL-CIO president

Editor’s note: This open letter is by Ben Johnson, former president of the Vermont American Federation of Teachers and Vermont AFL-CIO.


As a former president of the Vermont AFL-CIO I worked with dozens of different unions in industries across the state. Unions were born from our forbears’ desire to improve conditions for everyone.

For over ten years I was a union activist, starting as most do, in my local union. I’ve been on bargaining teams, worked as chapter president, treasurer, state federation president, and worked on numerous campaigns.  One thing I have observed is that human institutions tend to reflect basic human drives, like self-preservation. Over time, many of the very elements that unions fought for turned out to be poison pills, weakening them from the inside.

One of these is the right to collect mandatory fees from non-members. The notion behind it seems fair enough at first glance: Unions have to cover and represent these non-members, so if they can’t be made to pay for the services, masses of members would defect and leave the union penniless and powerless. In practice, though, this ability just insulated union leaders from the preferences of their own members, and actually created an incentive to be less communicative with members – the union gets most of the revenue anyway, and the fewer members know what the union is up to, the less demanding it is to run. This is simply self-preservation, union leaders maximizing their return on their investment of time and effort.

So last year when the US Supreme Court ruled in its Janus decision that public sector unions could no longer collect those fees, some thought that members would immediately flee the union. My own guess was that most would not, because they’ve become used to paying dues, and they would not want to give up the right to vote and participate in the union.

But the Janus decision gives union members a reason to reflect on their membership. Now you have the option of withdrawing from the union and paying no fees (which used to be up to 85% of full dues), transferring economic pressure from you to the union.

If the union is doing as you think it should, then continue on. If you are not happy with your union, then one choice is to get involved, learn how it all works, and give it your time and effort.

Another choice is to drop your membership and see how the organizations respond to the pressure of losing your dues. You’re still covered by the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, and the union will still represent you. You still have the full rights of seniority and tenure that anyone has under the contract, but the union will have to show that they really do need your dues to function. That will only push them in the direction of greater responsiveness.

Unions may become radically more responsive and reflective of all their members, or they may double down on how they did things before.  In either case, the Janus decision has certainly pointed unions themselves toward soul-searching. There is no reason that members shouldn’t do the same. So, take a few minutes and ask yourself how you feel about the organization that represents you, and you’ll be happier with whichever path you choose.

With Regards,

Ben Johnson

Image courtesy of Public domain

7 thoughts on “An open letter to teachers from former AFT & AFL-CIO president

  1. There is nobody in our state that doesn’t want teachers well paid. Who would want to short their own teacher a decent wage? A wage worthy of their skill talent and the job they are set out to do.

    The family structure may be the most critical piece in the entire equation. We can have good schools, but to we have strong families? According to Planned Parenthood 50% of all births are unplanned in Vermont. Let’s add to the mix that Vermont was the leading state in the nation for addicted births, where young children are born addicted to Heroin, Crack, etc .etc. I suspect we’re still right up in the top ten. Add to this we financially profit of keeping people trapped in poverty by making plans people can never get out of. We are creating generational poverty and broken families just like the big cities.

    We pay our teachers very well. The teachers themselves, our public officials and the general public do not have a handle what is being paid, because it is broken up in so many different pieces.

    We need to deal with the truth, it will set us all free. We can become grateful we can celebrate a job well done.

  2. I vote for the second option, particularly i+n Vermont. As we all know, student population in the state has been declining over the years, yet school budgets continue to grow which causes the school tax portion of property taxes to rise. The cost/student is way out of wack and is among the leaders in the US.

    • The cost per student is a complete smoke screen. The bill to the taxpayer should be the same, whether Vermont has the current crop of kids or 5 kids, or an increase of say 10%. The bill to the taxpayer should be the same, because unless the school increased in population that you had to hire another teacher, it’s a relatively fixed cost.

      They are using the cost per student to gain more control and consolidation. Notice in all these discussions of Act 46 there was never any word on reducing the tax bill? It’s no coincidence this was left out.

      The school portion of your tax bill will go up yet again, promise you that.

  3. Worker’s choices aren’t only to pay dues or not. The unspoken option is for a worker to bargain his or her contract with an employer as an individual, without collective bargaining. Unfortunately, “Vermont is one of thirty-two states that require collective bargaining in [public school] education, and its bargaining laws are more union-friendly than in most other states.”

    Can individuals make better deals on their own? As with public education’s student performance, sooner or later workers will begin to realize that one-size-fits-all agreements aren’t always the way to go, especially when they have no alternatives.

    • Sidwell in Washington D.C. has teaching staff that would not work for paltry teacher union wages.This is where the Obama girls went to school,as well as Chelsea Clinton.Tuition is $18,000 per semester.5 star chefs are employed in the cafeteria.In the morning when children are arriving at school you can see lines of limousines taking up the entire block.No problems with test scores at Sidwell either.The students are among the best and brightest Washington has to offer.The school does have a diversity problem though,very few children of color.

      • Sidwell Friends is a parochial Quaker school, arguably one of the most exclusive private schools in the country. It’s student teacher ratio for 5th thru 12th grade is 16:1.

        In VT, the ratio is 11 to 1 with a student to staff ratio of 6 to 1.

        100% of Sidwell’s student graduate. In Vermont, more than 90% graduate.

        100% of Sidwell’s students go to college.

        Fewer than half of Vermont’s graduates meet grade level standards and go on to college, where 40% of them require remedial instruction before taking college level courses. Subsequently, that 40% typically drops out before they graduate from college.

        Apple and Oranges.

        • Children’s minds are clay to be formed.Some clay is just of higher quality.It all relates to what or who you are working with in the first place.

          genes matter

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