An Open Letter to Teachers from former AFT & AFL-CIO President

Ben Johnson
Former President
Vermont American Federation of Teachers
and Vermont AFL-CIO


As a former president of the Vermont AFL-CIO I worked with dozens of different unions in industries across the state. Unions were born from our forbears’ desire to improve conditions for everyone.

For over ten years I was a union activist, starting as most do, in my local union. I’ve been on bargaining teams, worked as chapter president, treasurer, state federation president, and worked on numerous campaigns.  One thing I have observed is that human institutions tend to reflect basic human drives, like self-preservation. Over time, many of the very elements that unions fought for turned out to be poison pills, weakening them from the inside.

One of these is the right to collect mandatory fees from non-members. The notion behind it seems fair enough at first glance: Unions have to cover and represent these non-members, so if they can’t be made to pay for the services, masses of members would defect and leave the union penniless and powerless. In practice, though, this ability just insulated union leaders from the preferences of their own members, and actually created an incentive to be less communicative with members – the union gets most of the revenue anyway, and the fewer members know what the union is up to, the less demanding it is to run. This is simply self-preservation, union leaders maximizing their return on their investment of time and effort.

So last year when the US Supreme Court ruled in its Janus decision that public sector unions could no longer collect those fees, some thought that members would immediately flee the union. My own guess was that most would not, because they’ve become used to paying dues, and they would not want to give up the right to vote and participate in the union.

But the Janus decision gives union members a reason to reflect on their membership. Now you have the option of withdrawing from the union and paying no fees (which used to be up to 85% of full dues), transferring economic pressure from you to the union.

If the union is doing as you think it should, then continue on. If you are not happy with your union, then one choice is to get involved, learn how it all works, and give it your time and effort.

Another choice is to drop your membership and see how the organizations respond to the pressure of losing your dues. You’re still covered by the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, and the union will still represent you. You still have the full rights of seniority and tenure that anyone has under the contract, but the union will have to show that they really do need your dues to function. That will only push them in the direction of greater responsiveness.

Unions may become radically more responsive and reflective of all their members, or they may double down on how they did things before.  In either case, the Janus decision has certainly pointed unions themselves toward soul-searching. There is no reason that members shouldn’t do the same. So, take a few minutes and ask yourself how you feel about the organization that represents you, and you’ll be happier with whichever path you choose.

With Regards,

Ben Johnson

PS. Learn more at Workplace Freedom: What You Need to Know 

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Thaddeus Cline August 30, 2019 at 11:20 pm

I fail to see how teachers could teach better , get paid better, have better health benefits , even safer working conditions, and so on without unions . If your are are worker rather then a company owner or its stock holder . Have you got the time or connections to do so ? If so please tell us about it we all would all like to know.
Ben Johnson says that the right to work law would allow workers to get the same benefits as union workers . Excuse me but how did those workers get those benefits, and how will they with out a Union ?
If he thought unions didn’t work , he should have worked within the union to change it .
Clearly he didn’t want to make the effort. And if he’s going to do what he’s done then the first thing he should do is explain why . If he wants to convince me he needs to do that . He needs to tell me how workers can get the same rights as a union can and how they should go about doing it . It’s not rocket science to know how to convince me.
If he was really on the side of the worker getting what they deserved. He won’t be going into advising company’s how to keep workers from getting there natural rights.
If your a new company or and old one looking for a loan to start out or continue . You should have to prove to the bank and this state that your workers will have a livable wage . They are what makes your company work well. And just because you treat your workers well dose not mean by a long shot that others will. ( and what exactly Made you think they would ?)
The word collective bargaining means what it says . You ask all the members what they want . If he didn’t do that then he should not have been elected. Either he hid his agenda or the workers failed to check him out well , or a combination of the two .
Again and a again you and other conservatives can’t seem to think in the third person . You, more simply can’t put yourself’s in the same the others shoe .
And sadly you can’t think because you were smart enough to make money and on your own and control things . That others might not have been born with your brains .
Your own wife or husband was not and you most see the difference. But sadly I don’t see you taking that to the next level, to understand how the other half lives . And that’s putting it nicely because we all know or should know that one side is less then half . Or as George Orwell said . “ everyone was born equal , it just that some were born more equal then others “


William Hays August 31, 2019 at 12:27 pm

Thad “dose” it again! Thanks, “teacher’s” unions.


Ed Riso September 4, 2019 at 3:40 am

I don’t believe that Orwell quote means what you think it means.


Mike August 31, 2019 at 12:36 pm

Hooray for JANUS.!!!It’s great to see common sense prevail for a change.


Paul Dame August 31, 2019 at 2:06 pm

“…because you were smart enough to make money and on your own and control things . That others might not have been born with your brains”

Thad, are to suggesting that people who join a union are intellectually inferior to people who don’t? That’s got to be one of the most insulting things I’ve ever heard someone say about union workers!


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