Originally Published June 27, 2013
Something extraordinary happened in Waterville, WA, last November. A group of around 20 teachers in the local school district cut their ties with the state affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA) and established their own local union to meet their unique needs in the workplace.
Union opposition and administrative hoops make decertification efforts like those of the Waterville teachers relatively rare. However, these teachers have provided the most recent hope that it is possible. Take a look at their story:
While leaving a union may not sound like much of an accomplishment, it is important to understand why it rarely occurs among unionized public employees and why it was such a great feat for Waterville teachers.
Democratic elections are a hallmark of a free society, and for good reason. Holding regular elections for our leaders helps keep them accountable and responsive to the people. It encourages healthy debate about the direction of our society and prevents power from becoming entrenched and abusive.
The same principles should apply to labor unions for the same reasons.
Though unions frequently affirm that “the most sacred right in our democracy is the right to vote,” they fail to provide this right to their members when it comes to choosing and maintaining union representation.
In Washington and most other states, a union only needs to win an initial certification election in order to get permanent, exclusive representation rights in a workplace. In other words, because 50 percent-plus-one employees voted once to unionize, all employees in the workplace from that time on must be represented by the same union.
This is hardly democratic. According to James Sherk at the Heritage Foundation, “the vast majority of unionized government workforces were organized at least 30 years ago.” As a result, “very few of today’s teachers participated in the decades-old election that selected their current bargaining representatives.” In a number of school districts Sherk studied, all of the teachers were being represented by a union they had no voice in choosing.
This phenomenon is undoubtedly present in Washington’s public sector as well, since many public unions in Washington were initially certified in the late 1970s. Consequently, any employees who began working for a unionized public employer after the initial certification vote have had no say in selecting their union representative – or determining whether to have one at all.
Decertification: A Way Public Employees Can Create Options for Themselves
State law provides only one method for public employees to change or get rid of their union: a process called “decertification.”
Under this procedure, if at least 30 percent of the employees in a workplace submit individual notices to the state Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) within a specific 30-day window, then PERC will hold an election in which the employees will vote on whether to keep, change, or get rid of their union.
The process can be difficult and slow, and it’s almost always opposed by the union. Unsurprisingly, many unions explicitly prohibit members from trying to decertify in their bylaws. Section 4 of SEIU Local 925’sconstitution states that, “no member shall engage in dual unionism or espouse dual unionism or disaffiliation nor shall any member be a party to activity to secure the disestablishment of the local as the collective bargaining representative for any employee.” The United Automobile Workers (UAW), which has a presence in Washington, provides for the expulsion of any member who supports or engages in decertification efforts in its constitution.
Even though decertification is a difficult process, it has been done in Washington, most recently by the teachers in Waterville. Teachers in the St. John School District decertified the WEA in 2009, and the Sprague School District decertified the WEA in 2005.
Decertification efforts are not limited to Washington, either. Just this month a Kansas school district decertifiedthe Kansas affiliate of the NEA.
For workers interested in changing or eliminating their union, our new publication, “Employee Freedom: A Guide to Opting Out of Union Membership,” explains Washington’s decertification process in detail, as well as other alternatives to union membership.
Workers in Washington deserve far more say in making decisions about union membership in their workplaces. Requiring unions to be regularly recertified by employees in a workplace would be a step in the right direction. For now, it is important for employees to realize that the decertification process exists and to know how to use it.