Nicole Cagno-Angerame, a Long Island elementary school teacher, has seen it all when it comes to labor unions pushing back on First Amendment rights. When she chose to opt out of her union, the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), it led to increased tension between her and several leaders of the local union.
Before opting out, she compiled research and looked at teachers union-endorsed lesson plans, books, and overall statements on political issues, and some of the teachers’ unions political positions did not fit her own morals and values. “I’ve seen a lot of what has been going on, especially by the NEA and AFT, and what they promote,” she said. “I don’t agree with it.” For example, Nicole pointed out, “I believe in equality. I don’t believe in equity as far as the way they introduce it and want it in schools.”
After coming to a decision, she went to her school district to opt out, but the district made it “impossible for me to opt out,” she said. They claimed that only the teachers union could stop union membership dues from coming out of her paycheck, and the issue went on for weeks.
Finally, Nicole was able to opt out of paying union membership dues, but it was not the end of the union pushback.
She said, “When I decided to opt out, the union president and vice president came to my school because they were caught off guard.” These union representatives rarely came to elementary schools because they were based out of the local high school. “Only unless there was a major catastrophe would they ever listen,” she noted. “But when they knew I wanted to opt out, they were there in less than half a day!”
The union executives spoke with her about her opt out request, but both their unexpected visit and the discussion left Nicole feeling isolated and intimidated.
The union later sent out an announcement that their new constitutional amendment meant opt outs would now be limited to only the month of August. It also said the union would not support non-members nor represent them. To Nicole, it was a clear example of retaliation against her decision to opt out and demonstrated how “lonely” it can feel to opt out of a union. While Nicole was grateful that she was able to successfully leave the union, she worried for other members who are now limited to a short window each year.
The union response Nicole received after opting out highlights the breadth of misinformation when it comes to exercising one’s First Amendment right. For example, the union appeared to believe that Nicole was “not entitled” to the terms of the union’s contract with the school district, even though the union is legally obligated to treat members and non-members equally.
Nicole found out that union officials “didn’t know how to react” to her opt out request. “I couldn’t tell you how many weeks it took,” she stated. “They had to consult so many people because they haven’t been in this situation before.” This is especially concerning when the school district relies on the union to process requests.
After facing such a harsh reaction to her resignation, Nicole began her search for an alternative membership organization because, in her words, she “wanted to be a part of a group that had the same morals and values that I have and that I want to instill in my career as a teacher.”
When Nicole came across AFFT, she thought, “This seems too good to be true” and applied to become a member. Soon enough, she received a welcome kit and felt she was a part of a community.
“The biggest perk I have is I feel connected to people,” she said. “It’s so professional and in tune” with members’ needs, she added.
She appreciates AFFT because the organization’s research helps her become better informed. She said it has allowed her to have “meaningful” conversations with her colleagues and friends and help others think more deeply about unions, pension funds, and other public employee issues.
To aspiring teachers, interns, or the everyday person, Nicole’s advice is that people should stay informed about their local and national union and find out “the purpose of the union that you belong to.” She counseled, “When your union begins to tell you who to vote for, how to vote, when to vote … you should not be relying on other people to make your decisions as it is your right to vote … No one should be making decisions for you.” Nicole added, “I think we should understand that we have our minds and make our own decisions; that’s what debating is for and that is why we have dialogue.”