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Bill Keeps Oklahoma Teachers From Paying Union Dues Through Payroll Deduction

Mark Twain Elementary second grade teacher Elizabeth Clarke staples together work from two of her second-grade students in this 2013 photo.
Chase Cook
Oklahoma Watch
Mark Twain Elementary second grade teacher Elizabeth Clarke staples together work from two of her second-grade students in this 2013 photo.

Oklahoma school districts won’t be able to automatically deduct teachers’ union fees from their paychecks if Gov. Mary Fallin signs a bill that was passed by the Senate last week. The legislation has drawn the ire of educators and some Republicans.

Rep. Tom Newell swears his bill isn’t out to get teachers. The Republican from Seminole authored the house version, which he says prohibits public sector unions who collectively bargain against the state from withholding dues.

“If you want to say this is anti-something, you can say it is anti-union. But it’s not anti-teacher,” Newell said. “If I wanted to go after teachers, there are teachers groups in this state that are teachers’ associations that do not collectively bargain. This bill does not affect them because they are not collectively bargaining. So if I wanted to go after teachers, I would have gone after all the teacher groups.”

It applies to two associations in particular – the Oklahoma Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. But it doesn’t touch other public sector unions, like police and fire. And Newell said it doesn’t restrict teachers’ ability to join a union.

“Any member that wants to join a union, they can fill out a simple automatic withdraw from their paycheck from their banking account. It can happen every month. It’s not a huge hassle for the employee,” Newell said. “It’s just simply saying we shouldn’t be in the business of filing those dues to the union.”

Linda Hampton, executive director of the Oklahoma Education Association, thinks the bill is retaliation. Her organization has sparred with legislators over issues like school vouchers, accountability standards and high stakes testing.

“We only have about a third of our schools that actually collectively bargain. What this does is just make it more inconvenient for them to payroll deduct their dues. It does not cost the state. It does not cost the district any additional time or money. It’s just a convenience,” Hampton said.

She feels teachers are being unfairly singled out at the worst possible time because it’s been seven years since teachers have received a raise, and they won’t be getting one this year.

“So this was just sort of an insult to injury that not only will they not get a pay raise, which will now be eight years, but they’re also going to lose something as minor as the ability to payroll deduct their dues,” Hampton said.

Newell said the paycheck withholdings are a subsidy because the state is doing something for the union - a payroll deduction - that would normally cost the union time and money to do itself. Hampton disagrees and said it doesn’t cost the state a dime.

The bill passed the Senate last week by a vote of 27 to 16, with eleven Republicans joining Democrats to vote against it. RepublicanRalphShortey was one of those “no” votes.

“We have said that this benefit of payroll deduction will be afforded to all of these groups that it’s been afforded to for years and years and years, but we singled out teachers and said, ‘Except you guys,’” Shortey said.

The bill is similar to legislation in Wisconsin where Governor Scott Walker has taken an aggressive approach against public sector unions. Shortey believes it’s unneeded in Oklahoma.

“We don’t have those kinds of problems, but for some godawful reason we think that we need to out-Wisconsin Wisconsin,” Shortey said. “We don’t have those kinds of problems, so why are we creating a problem where one doesn’t exist?”

Despite criticisms from Shortey and a few other Senate Republicans, the state Republican party has given its full support of the measure. So too has the Oklahoma Chamber, whose vice president for government affairs Jonathan Buxton would like to see it expanded in future legislative sessions.

“Whether they work for the state or they work for private employers, in the end when it comes to paying union dues, that should be a check or a direct deposit that the employee works out on their own – not something that the employer has to serve as the collection agent for the union,” Buxton said.

The battle over payroll deductions could linger for a while. If Fallin signs the bill into law, the American Federation of Teachers may file a lawsuit.


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Jacob McCleland spent nine years as a reporter and host at public radio station KRCU in Cape Girardeau, Mo. His stories have appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Here & Now, Harvest Public Media and PRI’s The World. Jacob has reported on floods, disappearing languages, crop duster pilots, anvil shooters, Manuel Noriega, mule jumps and more.
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