Freedom of association doesn’t end in the workplace
© Thinkstock

Freedom of association is a fundamental principle of American liberty. The right to start, to join, or to leave a group is simple enough, but what voluntary associations have accomplished because of it is staggering. Associations have worked to end slavery, to defeat polio, and to extend voting rights to women.

Americans support associations to fight heart disease and cancer, to feed and clothe the poor, and to support veterans. Americans will come together in voluntary associations to combat racism, inequality, and the ugly bigotry and violence we witnessed in Charlottesville.

And, this critical freedom is experiencing a new resurgence in America’s workforce as the cost and value of membership in labor unions is being reconsidered by millions of hardworking Americans.

This week a coalition of non-profit organizations throughout the country, including free market think tanks, non-union professional associations, education and labor reform advocates, celebrate National Employee Freedom Week. Spearheaded by the Nevada Policy Research Institute and the Association of American Educators, this effort seeks to educate America’s workforce about their rights regarding union membership, including the right to leave the union and to join a non-union alternative. For too long America’s workers—teachers especially—have been forced into joining or funding labor unions because they do not know they have the right to opt out. This coerced membership and forced dues run contrary to freedom of association all Americans should enjoy.

For five years now National Employee Freedom Week has worked to ensure that every employee in America knows exactly what options he or she has and how to exercise them—a positive and professional message encouraging employees everywhere to choose an association that best suits his or her budget, principles and career aspirations.

Since 1947 the “closed shop”—in which union membership was a precondition for employment—has been outlawed. In the 28 right-to-work states this means all employees have the right to opt-out of or never join a union, if they so choose. In the rest of the country where employees lack right-to-work protection, workers are likely to be required to pay a significant “agency fee” share of dues if they opt out of full membership, impelling many to remain union members. Workers can also become religious objectors, directing 100 percent of their union dues to a charity agreed upon with the union.

In a recent survey conducted by National Employee Freedom Week, nearly three in ten union members reported they would leave the union if they could do so without losing their job or any other penalty--and nearly 80 percent of Americans agree they should have that right.

Even for employees who know they have a right to quit their union, the process can be burdensome and confusing. For example, teachers in Clark County, Nev., America’s fifth-largest school district, are only afforded two weeks in July each year when they can leave their union—cell phone contracts are more reasonable. Union bosses hid the exit door in the middle of the summer when a teacher is rightly enjoying a much-deserved break. Many other states have an opt-out deadline in August. Summer comes to an end in September with a cruel and expensive surprise to any teacher trying to exercise the right to leave: “You are too late, pay up.” Next month many unions will celebrate Labor Day by sending out collection notices for unpaid and mandatory dues to members who wanted out.

National Employee Freedom Week shines a spotlight on these unfair practices, restoring the freedom of association in the workplace that all employees have technically, but not widely, enjoyed since the Taft-Hartley Act was passed 70 years ago. Coalition members in each of the participating states are running information campaigns designed to put control back in the hands of each employee. Only when employees are making informed choices can we have true freedom of association for all of America’s labor force.

Colin Sharkey is the Executive Vice President of the Association of American Educators, the largest national non-union teacher association, and the National Director of National Employee Freedom Week.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.