OPED: York County teachers deserve democracy, too

Commonwealth Foundation

Debates. Straw Polls. Primary Elections. With 2016 underway, Americans will soon have their say in our nation’s leadership. But imagine a world where the votes you cast this year would be your last for another 40 years.

Priya Abraham

What if we traded democracy for a “once-elected-always-elected” system in which the party in power never had to face re-election? Accusations of disenfranchisement and calls for immediate reform would be too loud to ignore.

Shockingly, this isn’t hypothetical for thousands of public sector workers in Pennsylvania.

Statewide, less than 1 percent of all public schoolteachers have had the chance to vote for, or “certify,” the union that claims to speak for them, according to data from the Pa. Department of Education.

Once a government union wins an election to represent public employees, the union is never required to stand for re-election, according to Pennsylvania’s Public Employee Relations Act of 1970. That’s right, never.

Instead, the union remains the employees’ exclusive bargaining voice — forever. More than 40 years have passed since most school districts held an election to determine which union should represent workers.

Philadelphia is perhaps the best example. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) claims to represent the city’s public school employees, including 8,000-plus teachers. But the union was elected in 1965 — when the Vietnam War was raging — and hasn’t stood for re-election since.

Fifty-one years later, not a single current Philadelphia teacher was working in the district when the union was certified.

It’s the same situation in York City School District, where the last certification vote was in 1971. No current teacher was working in the district when the vote was held. And in West Shore School District, just one current teacher had a chance to vote on their union.

Without regularly scheduled elections, only a handful of unions have ever faced re-election. As a result, public sector unions — purportedly champions of the little guy — have become virtually unaccountable to ordinary workers.

No wonder teachers feel alienated. Dauphin County social studies teacher Chad Lister says, “For the amount of dues you’re paying, over $600, I’m not sure what you’re getting.”

In a representative democracy, voters don’t have to request an election — the law requires them. Not so in public sector unions—workers must jump through a series of hoops at just the right time to force a new election.

That’s plain unfair, and it has implications for taxpayers.

Without question, government unions impact public budgets. Some level of government is the largest employer in one-third of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, and government unions represent 340,000 of these workers.

In negotiating for pay and benefits, government unions influence how public funds will be spent. One extra dollar for employee health care benefits, for example, means one fewer dollar for fixing local roads or one more dollar in tax hikes. That’s why all Pennsylvanians — not just government workers — have a stake in ensuring unions are kept accountable through elections.

The solution isn’t radical: Workers should have the right to re-elect their union at least as often as we elect a president— every four years. If the union provides value to those workers, it will almost certainly be reelected. If it doesn’t, workers can look to join other unions, form their own, or have none at all.

If diversity and competition breed strength in our communities and the marketplace, shouldn’t the same hold true for unions?

Giving teachers the right to re-elect the organization that could represent them for their entire careers shouldn’t be too much to ask.

That’s why Sen. Richard Alloway (R-Franklin County) has introduced Senate Bill 1059, mandating periodic elections for public sector unions. This would put power back where it belongs — in the hands of teachers and other government workers.

It’s time to end the once-elected-always-elected union stranglehold. Teachers shouldn’t have to beg for a voice —democracy should be the default.

Priya Abraham is a senior fellow for theCommonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free market think tank.