On this week’s podcast, David Osborne joins to help us do a deep dive into unions. We discuss the differences between public and private unions as well as fiscal and cultural impacts. We also bring to light some of the dirty tricks that unions play and how we as parents, employees, and citizens can fight back. 

David R. Osborne is CEO of Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector employees offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights. Prior to joining Americans for Fair Treatment, David was President & General Counsel of the Fairness Center, a nonprofit, public interest law firm providing free legal representation to those hurt by public-sector union officials.


Beverly Hallberg:

And welcome to She Thinks, a podcast where you’re allowed to think for yourself. I’m your host, Beverly Hallberg. And on today’s podcast, we’re doing a deep dive into unions. We’ll discuss the differences between public and private sector unions and what their impacts are fiscally and culturally.

We’ll also bring some light to the dirty tricks that unions deploy and how we as parents, employees and citizens can fight back. Joining us to discuss this all is, David Osborne. David Osborne is CEO of Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public sector employees offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights.

Prior to joining AFFT, David was president and general counsel of the Fairness Center, a nonprofit public interest law firm providing free legal representation to those hurt by public sector union officials. David, a pleasure to have you on She Thinks.

David Osborne:

Thanks so much, Beverly. Really, really good to see you.

Beverly Hallberg:

Yeah. Good to see you as well. And I thought I did give a little brief description of Americans for Fair Treatment, but can you get a little bit more into the details on why this organization was created and what you’re trying to do with the organization?

David Osborne:

Yeah. This organization has sort of a unique purpose. It’s not really a think tank. It’s not really a public interest law firm. If anything, I’d say it’s sort of an activist organization for public employees who really want to stand up for what’s right. The organization really came about as a response to public employees.

As I was litigating cases with the Fairness Center against public sector unions, I was in contact with all sorts of public employees who really felt like they had been given a raw deal with the unions. And even though I could litigate a case for them, even though I could sort of advise them as to their rights, they really didn’t have anywhere else to go if it weren’t for the union.

If you’re a public employee in the typical union state, you are either going to be in the union and be in the 95% or you’re going to be sort of out on your own. And you may not know who that remaining 5% is. You may feel very much like you’re the only one who’s taken a stand against the union.

AFFT helps those folks find one another within their workplaces. And it connects them with all sorts of resources so that when the union’s telling them, for instance, how to vote, how to think about their job, who to pay money to, to keep it, we can actually stand in the gap and help those public employees with accurate information about their rights.

Beverly Hallberg:

And when we think about unions, I think an important distinction is that there are public unions and then there are private sector unions. What are the differences between both? And when you think about how many people are part of unions, what are those numbers as far as membership for both of those?

David Osborne:

Well, the story goes back quite a ways. Private sector unions are the ones we typically think about when we think about unions. We think about coal miners. We think about railroad workers, even airline employees, mill workers. Public employees were first sort of unionized in a sort of a chaotic environment in the early 1900s.

And the law adapted to sort of bring that chaotic experience into some sort of a cohesive experience for employees. So employees in these private sector jobs would meet their union and the union would coerce them in all these interesting ways into becoming a union member, into paying union dues and then into taking a stand along with other people in something they call concerted action against their employer.

It was only in the 1970s that some of these unions started to figure out, maybe if we could do the same thing in the public sector. So think teachers, city employees, state employees, cops, firefighters, if we could do that, we’ve got access to a whole new membership, thousands of new employees coming in and paying union dues and feeding the machine that we created long time ago.

So that’s the rough difference between the two. I will say the public experience has been a little bit less chaotic given that it only began in the 1970s, but if you tell a teacher that in Chicago, for instance, they’ll laugh at you because their experience even very recently has been of ranker of strikes, of work stoppages. And it has been a chaotic experience for many teachers.

Beverly Hallberg:

And how did it come about that if you were in a certain occupation like a teacher, like a fireman, it was mandatory to be part of a union, that it wasn’t an optional thing to be able to opt into this?

David Osborne:

Well, I have to be the lawyer and say that’s not exactly accurate to begin with, but that is the line that so many public employees have been fed for a very long time. So it’s never been a requirement in the public sector that one would have to become a member of a union in order to keep your job.

However, that doesn’t mean that public employees could work and refuse to be part of the union for free. For a very long time they had to pay what they call a fair share fee or an agency fee that was roughly commensurate with dues. And unfortunately that meant that they got the worst of both worlds.

They were not a member of the union, but they also had to pay a lot of money in order to keep their public sector job. Those requirements really began right at the start of public sector unionization in the 1970s. And it was only in the late ’70s that someone started to challenge those kinds of things in court, which led to a long line of litigation over public employees.

And that’s when you start to see the private and public sector categories really diverge because the public sector has First Amendment rights, because their employer is the government. That’s what makes this such a unique category for a lot of people who we work with.

Beverly Hallberg:

And of course there are a lot of impacts fiscally in unions. There are, what you just mentioned, the dues that people have to pay. So interested in hearing on how much it does cost a public union employee to give dues, but also there’s the money involved in politics.

Politics is a big part of this, and you have unions that give to political candidates. So where do the dollar bills play a role in all of this?

David Osborne:

Well, when it comes to unions, money is everything. This is what drives the unions. It’s what keeps power. It’s what makes union officials quasi-celebrities in American politics.

If you are an average public sector employee, you can expect to pay somewhere from $800 to $1000 per year in dues, which is not a small amount for a lot of public employees, especially public servants like teachers. That money, there’s really not a lot of restriction in terms of what the union can do with the money at that point.

There used to be, for public employees who were paying fees, some sort of court oversight into how those fees were spent because there were non-members involved, but now that everybody is a member of the union in the public sector, unions do all sorts of nefarious things with that money.

We found that with the NEA, the biggest teachers union in America, for every $2 they spend in politics, they spend just $1 on representational activities that is actually serving the members in ways that they would recognize as being helpful to their career.

All told, within the 2020 election cycle, there’s about $1.8 billion spent by unions generally on electoral politics. That is a massive number. And for all the complaining that unions have done over the years about something like Citizens United, they’ve really taken advantage of it.

Some of the largest Super PACs in America are actually creations of public sector unions. I can tell you in a minute how that sort of feeds into the business model, but for now, what public employees I think need to hear is that there really is no restriction on what unions can do once they turn over those dues dollars to the union.

Beverly Hallberg:

And COVID put into light a lot of the practices of the unions. It was interesting to see politicians who struggled to criticize, you mentioned the NEA, or other teachers unions when those unions and the heads of them were not encouraging teachers to go back into school. If anything, it was kids going back to school was the last thing that happened.

Everybody else was opened up and working and it was the students who were suffering. Tell me about the connection between union leaders, politicians. And did you see that across the board where so many politicians struggle to have a voice in whether or not children should go back to school because they were beholden to the unions because there are political donations wrapped up in that?

David Osborne:

Yeah. I’ve been doing this work for about eight years, Beverly, and to me it has become obvious that the unions are really controlling most of our state houses. What the pandemic brought to light was that’s true and it comes home. I’ve got four kids.

Many of the parents that I know suddenly realized that the teachers unions could control whether the teachers show up to work. And it means that they may have to stay home from school and may have to engage in some kind of the worst kind of homeschooling you can imagine.

You get paperwork for your kid from the teacher and then you supervise them throughout the day. Just a mess. Obviously a lot of people experienced that on a very personal level. Here’s the part about public sector unionization that made it possible for unions to shut things down the way that they did.

It’s a term called exclusive representation. And exclusive representation means that when a union comes into a particular workplace, they don’t just represent the members. They don’t just represent the people who want to be represented by the union. Instead, they represent an entire bargaining unit.

So if you’re talking about teachers, that means the union comes in and they represent all the teachers. I have to say emphatically, that does not mean that all of the teachers within a bargaining unit support the union, they are actually forced into that arrangement by this legal structure called exclusive representation.

What that meant for the unions is that when it came time to report for work or not, they have control over the spigot so that they can shut it off completely and make sure that no teachers can arrive at work. When the school district sits down to negotiate these kind of things, they’re only talking to one person.

They don’t get to go around the union and talk to the teachers and get them back to work or even figure out what they want in order to get back to work. Instead, they have to deal with union officials who are standing in the way of this more practical arrangement that usually happens on a very localized basis with some teachers who actually have kids in the school district or want to get them in as well.

Beverly Hallberg:

Did you hear a lot from teachers during COVID reaching out to you saying, please help us, we want to get back to work, or how did you work with the fight against the force unionization during the era of COVID?

David Osborne:

Well, we deal with a lot of public employees in the Northeast, and I got to tell you, we forget quickly, but at the beginning of the pandemic, it was not clear what we were dealing with. And so a lot of the teachers that reach out to us, some of them wanted to return to the classroom.

Some of them were terrified to return to the classroom. And on both ends, I really understood their plight. The unfortunate thing about what they were dealing with was that they had all-or-nothing solution called exclusive representation.

And when the union gets to control whether people go back to work or not on what terms, it really wipes out the individual preferences of the teachers that were contacting us. So we tried to actually field both kinds of requests, but the problem was always union officials.

We saw in Pennsylvania, in particular, union officials keeping classrooms closed when teachers wanted to go back. And in New York, we actually saw some teachers’ unions selling out the teachers who were scared to return to the classroom and doing deals with local governments to get everybody back in the classroom.

Really at the end of the day, there’s a union official sitting at a table across from school board members or from a designated negotiator and they’ve got their own desires and their own political calculus going on. So that the teachers who are waiting to see what’s happening in the negotiation, really they often turn end up on the wrong end of that deal.

Those union negotiators saw, during COVID, an opportunity not to serve the teachers, but instead to get this grab back of all the things that they’ve ever wanted. Pay was certainly part of it. They saw COVID as an opportunity to negotiate for higher pay in exchange for returning to the classroom.

But there were also some obscene things that really had nothing at all to do with education or even the interests of teachers. The Philadelphia Teachers Union, for instance, saw a great opportunity to get a lot of buildings fixed up.

There were unions that joined together to demand things like social justice or equity, all of these terms which sound really good, but we’re not really sure what they mean. And they used this crisis as a means to just continue to get the school boards to give up as much as they could possibly get. And ultimately, I don’t think anybody won as a result of that dealing.

Beverly Hallberg:

And I think you pointed to an important part of all of this, which is its all-or-nothing deal. Yet when you’re dealing with different school districts, different teachers and states across the country where you had COVID numbers varying from state to state, desire of governors to open or close states varying from state to state.

It really made a one-size-fits-all policy have to apply to everybody across the board, even if it didn’t match what the teachers wanted in a certain district, the students, the parents, even the elected officials. So do you think this era really pointed out the flaws in the all-or-nothing system?

David Osborne:

Yeah. Absolutely. This was a prime example. And I’ll say, I didn’t mean to dodge your question before, most of the teachers that came to us seeking assistance with this, this was not at all a surprise to them. This was not terribly new. The circumstances were different, but they had been dealing with this kind of behavior from public sector unions for a very long time.

Many teachers have actually been forced to strike over the years, even when they don’t want to do that. One of our members one time went to the negotiators and told them that he would like lower pay, that what he realized living in his community was that the tax base was shrinking.

That people couldn’t afford an increase in their taxes. And wanted to see, as a result, his wages go down and more people get to keep their jobs at the school district. Teachers unions don’t do that kind of thing. It’s always more and it doesn’t reflect local preferences.

And that’s a function of the larger teachers unions like the state. Whenever you’ve got these local teachers unions, they’re not very local. In fact, most of the money that teachers pay in dues goes up to the state level and even more goes up to the national level.

Beverly Hallberg:

Well, I want to take a brief moment to ask you our listeners a question. Are you a conservative woman? Do you feel problematic just for existing in today’s political landscape? Well, I have some info to share with you.

Every Thursday morning on “Problematic Women,” Lauren Evans and Virginia Allen sort through the news to bring stories and interviews that are of particular interest to you a problematic woman, that is, a woman whose opinions are often excluded or even mocked by those on the so-called pro-women left. Lauren and Virginia break down the news you care about in an upbeat and sharp-witted way.

So search for “Problematic Women” wherever you get your podcasts. And David, I want to come back to you on another side of this, we’ve talked about the impacts fiscally. This one-size-fits-all model that just isn’t working, but you’ve also talked about what unions have met culturally. When you talk about the cultural influence, what exactly are you referring to?

David Osborne:

Well, the unions have an incredible amount of power. We’ve been talking a lot about teachers unions, it’s not limited to teachers unions. A lot of power particularly on the local level when it comes to culture. And I can point back to teachers as the best example, because it’s the one people are most familiar with.

Not only during COVID did we realize the teachers unions had a lot of control over whether teachers would return to the classroom, we also got to listen to what teachers were teaching in class. And there are a lot of articles out there that are meant to be very scary about what teachers have been teaching our children.

And they include touchy topics around sex and gender, race. What you may be surprised to learn is that there aren’t that many teachers engaged in that, but every single teacher’s union is pushing for more teachers to be engaged talking about all of these touchy issues with a very liberal bent with kids as young as kindergarten.

They use their position as a negotiator for unions and then also as a provider of educational, like continuing education to teachers to push this kind of material. So I’ve been to Heritage Foundation conferences where they’re talking about critical race theory and all this kind of stuff.

Well, the intensity of conversation, the interest in these things is exactly the same over on the left, it’s all happening within teachers union conferences. So they’ve used these platforms to push things like a critical race theory teaching in the classroom and to fight bills like the one that we saw in Florida, which they refer to as its “don’t say gay” bill, we’ve seen them pushing that.

And a lot of teachers have decided that they’re not welcome anymore. Here’s how it looks, I mean, regardless of whether the union is successful in the court of public opinion, a lot of the teachers who are represented by the union, especially in very liberal areas in big cities, start to get the idea that maybe they’re kind of not supposed to be teaching anymore.

Maybe culture has moved on without them. So in Philadelphia and New York City, for instance, a lot of more conservative teachers or at least free-thinking teachers have really opted out entirely. They’ve decided to resign from their school and quit teaching or move out to the suburbs. That’s how teachers unions are pushing this kind of thing along.

Beverly Hallberg:

And do you see then this cultural change, this direct tie to politicians because obviously what’s happening in schools with the unions and what’s being pushed through curriculum. There’s also the unions connected to Congress, connected to Capitol Hill, connected to politicians.

So is this all just, jointly, these individuals are working together to promote a certain ideology that they hope gets out across the board, not just in education, but we see in military, the administrative state in a variety of ways and trying to influence culture in a wide scale?

David Osborne:

Yes. Yes. I’ve been surprised actually, Beverly, to learn that whenever there’s sort of a liberal program out there that the Democrats are pushing, they co-op the unions to make sure that program is successful on the ground level. Unions are kind of like the ground troops for Democrats.

And so whether it’s Obamacare years ago, or whether it’s an abortion-related policy that’s coming, the government uses unions, and unions will get people off of work, pile them in a bus, give them a lunch, pay them money, put a T-shirt on them and ship them down to a state capital, or even the federal capital and have them flood the state capital talking to lawmakers.

They look very powerful, it looks very grassroots, but I got to tell you, I’ve stopped some of these people at state capitals and I’ve asked them, “What are you here for? What’s the policy?” They don’t know who I am. I’m not even in a suit. And they’ll say, “I don’t know, I’m just here for the lunch.” They really don’t know.

And so even though that’s a very powerful tool, having people on the ground and it has worked for a very long time, I wouldn’t equate it to mass support. Unions are able to marshal up what looks like mass support, but it’s something quite different. It’s Astro-turf stuff.

Beverly Hallberg:

So do you see that the influence that unions have is starting to wane because a lot of this has been exposed, people are pushing back, the unions have gone too far and teachers and firemen and government workers don’t want to follow suit?

David Osborne:

Unions have lost a lot of members over the last few years. Part of what we do as an organization is attract people who have been dissatisfied with the union for a very long time. And we’ve seen firsthand some of these mass exoduses.

I do think that’s weakening the union in terms of dollars, we see them losing money over the years because they’re not bringing in the same level of membership dues. It’s also weakening them in terms of their overall numbers.

The less they can claim that they have a monopoly or a pure representative for the teachers that they’re supposed to represent, I think that the numbers going down really affects their credibility when they do that. What I have seen more recently though is a radicalization of the unions that probably has to do with a further concentration of their the liberal supporters within the unions.

So if the folks sticking around, that are still in unions today, really believe what the unions have to say, you’re going to see that their presidents, their executives, their officials get far more aggressive in how they speak about policy issues.

But all you have to do is watch Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers on a podcast like this, a video podcast, you’ll see that she is irate. She’s angry. It’s like your drunk aunt or something at a reunion. She’s lost her mind and she’s screaming and yelling. Yet this is the president of one of the largest teachers’ unions in America. And she has tons of political celebrity these days.

Beverly Hallberg:

Well, the final question I have for you is, let’s say we have somebody listening right now who is part of a union, whether a teacher or somebody who’s a policeman, fireman, how can you help them if they see some of these concerns? When should they reach out to you?

And is there anything that they can do on their own to stand up against things that they disagree with, that they’re forced to participate in because they’re part of a union?

David Osborne:

Yeah. Look, you’re not alone. You have a lot of options. So one of the first options that you can exercise is to stop subsidizing the union’s political agenda. A lot of people that we work with choose to go that direction. You’re going to get pushback from your union. You also have options there.

I’m a lawyer who’s litigated cases on these subjects. And I have a lot of friends who litigate in these areas. So we often give people referrals to lawyers who can help them litigate for free against their union when their rights have not been respected. And then beyond that, we help people exercise their freedom of speech.

So if there are particular issues that have really hurt you, that your union has taken advantage of you or your fellow public employees, we help you get a voice in the media. We help you write. Our website is full of stories from people who have wanted to tell their story for a very long time and simply haven’t had the platform.

Beverly Hallberg:

And what is the web address? If people want to reach out, how can they find you?

David Osborne:

Sure. afft.org.

Beverly Hallberg:

Well, David Osborne, with Americans for Fair Treatment, we appreciate your good work and also for joining us today. It was very insightful. And hopefully people listening if they need help, they can reach out to you and get some help. But David, thank you so much.

David Osborne:

Sure. Thank you so much, Beverly.

Beverly Hallberg:

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