Teachers unions often portray themselves as professional associations primarily concerned with enhancing public education. In order to live up to this image, it is important for teachers unions carefully to assess education policies on their own merit and avoid overt displays of political partisanship.
However, a recent decision by a teachers union in Ontario to fund a $3 million political action campaign does little to enhance their professional image. Delegates at the annual general meeting of the Ontario Catholic Teachers Association voted to impose a $60 levy on all of their 45,000 members. This money will be used to run attack ads against the Progressive Conservative party in the upcoming provincial election.
With this decision, the union tossed aside any vestige of professionalism and non-partisanship. Rather than focus on providing professional support and services to their members, this union decided to force all of their members to donate to a political cause—whether the donors support it or not.
One can only imagine the uproar if a big business owner chose to deduct $60 from his employees’ salaries and used that money to run attack ads against the Liberals or NDP. People would rightly be outraged at such coercion. The action of the Ontario teachers union is no less egregious.
What makes this coercion even more problematic is that Canadian teachers have little choice in regards to union membership. In most provinces, membership in the teachers union is a condition of employment in the public school system. So teachers who disagree with the political positions of their leadership have little recourse.
Unfortunately, this is not the only example of a teachers union directly involving itself in the political realm. Teachers unions often take policy positions contrary to the best interests of students. One of the most notable examples of this is the way in which teachers unions consistently oppose the use of standardized tests, even when these tests play an important role in identifying the academic achievement level of students.
For example, the British Columbia Teachers Federation (BCTF) stridently opposes the provincial Foundation Skills Assessment, a series of standardized tests that evaluate literacy and mathematics skills of students in grades 4 and 7. Not only does the BCTF encourage its members to lobby the government to abolish the tests, it even tries to get parents on its side as well. On its website, the BCTF encourages parents to sign a form letter to the school principal requesting an exemption for their children from the Foundation Skills Assessment.
A perusal of the BCTF’s website reveals a long list of press releases condemning the decisions of the provincial government. Once again, teachers who disagree with the political position of their union have no choice but to contribute to these activities through their forced membership dues.
Although some teachers unions are more discrete about their political involvement than others, the fact remains that teachers are forced to subsidize activities with which they may disagree. For example, television and radio ads that criticize the record of the government in power may not explicitly tell people who to vote for, but it is not difficult to read between the lines.
Teachers should not have to provide financial support to political causes they personally oppose. If the Ontario Catholic Teachers Association wishes to request a voluntary $60 contribution from its members for the purpose of political advertising, let them do so. Teachers who support these ads would contribute while those do not keep their money or could give it to other causes. Labour laws need to stipulate clearly that teachers and other union members are not required to fund political causes against their will.
Similarly, teachers who oppose standardized testing should feel free to write personal letters to the government and express their views in the public forum. However, it is inappropriate for the BCTF to use its mandatory union dues for the purpose of undermining an important measurement tool that many other teachers support.
Teachers unions should focus on providing professional support to their members and let individual teachers decide what political causes they involve themselves in. If forced membership dues are the only way unions can get funds for their political campaigns, they should ask themselves whether they are truly representing the wishes of their rank and file members.