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State of the Unions: How unions have failed Americas’s public employees and what can be done about it

To commemorate Labor Day this year, AFFT asked Cheri Gensel — a teacher in Pennsylvania and one of our long-time members — to share her experience with the teachers union that represents her.

This Labor Day we celebrate the many Americans who are devoted to work, faith, family and country – the people who have built our nation and made it what it is today. This includes public employees like myself, who help keep our nation functioning in good times and bad.

This Labor Day I will remember the contributions made by all of these hard-working Americans, but I will not be waving a union flag. Because of my personal experiences with unions, I have a unique take on the role unions should play in the lives of today’s workers.

Unions were once a necessary and important part of our country. As a social studies teacher, I understand the role they played in helping to change the working conditions for millions of Americans. Thankfully, those changes are now codified in state and federal law, and they are not a topic of debate.

So, what role should unions play today? Are they making our working lives more positive?

I thought about this when I had a conversation with my daughter’s friend, a teacher in North Carolina. I teach in Pennsylvania, where most teachers are unionized or work in a unionized workplace. In North Carolina, most schools are not unionized, and my daughter’s friend remarked that it must be nice to have a union in my workplace.

Well, I told her, not so much.

Today’s unions are essentially political organizations, especially the state and national unions like the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) and the National Education Association (NEA) – unions I was once a member of. I chose to give up my membership when I was criticized by union leaders for not conforming to their view of what political beliefs a teacher should hold. 

I’m an independent thinker, and I think that is my right as an American. In 2014, I was sent three letters by my union – the first one asked me to change my party affiliation so I could vote for their favored gubernatorial candidate, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. I was furious – who were they to tell me what political party to belong to or who to vote for? The second letter criticized my teaching ability based solely on my political affiliation. The third letter was sent to my husband. It said that I was going to vote for Wolf and that he should vote for Wolf as well.

This was the breaking point for me. I have a right to vote for who I want to, and I do not think a union should be dictating how I fill out my ballot or what party I belong to.

This wasn’t the first time the union had overstepped its bounds. I saw firsthand in my workplace how difficult the union can make our day-to-day lives as public employees. Simple tasks, like sweeping my own classroom or setting up a microphone for a school assembly, were off limits for me because those were roles the union wanted other employees to manage.

This inflexibility made our lives more difficult as teachers, with the union interfering in how we helped one another and what we could and could not do during the school day.

I have also seen how the union makes a workplace more adversarial. If local union leaders are combative, they can put administrators on edge by fighting with them over everything. This ends up hurting, not helping, teachers.

Unions once played an important role in making things better for Americans, but today they’re failing their members and the public as well. For public sector unions to get back to being pro-worker, they need to give up their political slant and represent all public employees. They also need to stop picking fights with administrators and play a more collaborative, positive role in the workplace. Maybe then we can once again celebrate the labor unions that brought us Labor Day.

– Cheri Gensel

See more by Cheri here.

Americans for Fair Treatment

Americans for Fair Treatment is a free, membership, non-profit organization designed to help public sector workers exercise their First Amendment rights without fear of coercion from unions.