Saturday, May 25, 2019

PA: Free To Teach? Who Are These Guys?

Once again, it's time for teachers in Pennsylvania to get a nice mass mailed postcard from our friends at Free To Teach, a group dedicated to reminding teachers that they don't have to belong to that stinky union. 

I took a look at these guys back in 2015, but as I look at the two postcards they sent to my home, I think it's time to revisit them. If you're a PA teacher wondering who these guys are, I can answer at least part of that question.

Free To Teach's front man used to be Matt Eason, a phys ed teacher down in the Philly area at Avon Grove schools (he also runs a first aid and CPR training company). His pitch was to call for "paycheck protection" and the death of fair share because he objected to being forced to join a union. He also pushed the usual misleading talking point that dues go to political purposes that he didn't support, an argument that depends on two notions; one, that dues pay for things like political support of candidates (they don't-- that's already illegal) and two, that everything a union does is political. 

I'm just going to liberate a couple of these guys before lunch
This time, the name on the postcard is Keith Williams. Like Eason, Williams was a real life teacher (English, Conewango Valley School District) for twenty-one years before he left in 2018 to become the director of Free To Teach. He's a graduate of Geneva College, and he also ran his own business consulting firm. And like Eason, he was upset that the union wanted them to give them his hard earned money. He even made the trip to Harrisburg in 2014 to argue against fair share and for paycheck protection . The argument here is that it costs the taxpayers big bucks to process deductions of union dues from teacher paychecks. This is a silly argument. Williams' involvement with Free To Teach pre-dates his new job; in 2016 he collaborated with Eason and Jodie Kratz on an op-ed cheering on the Friedrich's union-busting case. 

Free To Teach used to be a project of the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives, a far-right advocacy group in Pennsylvania that is part of the State Policy Network and is also tied to ALEC and Koch Brothers money. 

But things have changed since 2015. Specifically, the Janus decision changed things (a case bankrolled largely by members of the State Policy Network), and in 2018, after that decision came down, Williams left teaching for his new job, and Free To Teach became the project of an organization called Americans for Fair Treatment. In 2018, Williams tried to portray the group as a grass roots movement with Williams himself as the only paid staffer (Williams is listed as staff for both AFFT and Free To Teach), setting out to just let teachers know their rights. Yes, they have the same initials as the American Federation of Teachers-- what a remarkable coincidence.

AFFT is out to convince all public workers to exit their respective unions. They've been at it since 2014, when they were a national group based in Oklahoma. In 2016, they filed a lawsuit against the Philadelphia school district and teachers union over the practice of release time for union leaders to do union work. That suit was handled by the Fairness Center, a Harrisburg law group that will take the case of anybody "hurt by public sector union officials"-- so, literally a union busting law firm and another SPN memberThe suit was thrown out because the court found that AFFT, as an Oklahoma group, had no standing. That may well have helped give them the push to create or change into what is now technically AFFT-Pennsylvania and the PA-based Free To Teach. In 2018 they were successful in a similar suit against the Reading Education Association.

AFFT is now up to two staffers, including Williams and Rebecca Whalen (logistics and membership coordinator), a 2018 graduate of Lebanon Valley College whose only previous job is for the Commonwealth Foundation. 

In fact, AFFT is a pretty transparent shell for the Commonwealth Foundation. The AFFT board consists of:

Michael J. Reitz: Vice-President of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, one of the biggest right-wing thinky tank advocacy groups in the country, pushing right to work and funded generously by the Kochs, the Bradley Foundation, and, yes, the DeVos family.

Charles Mitchell: currently CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, previously an associate at the Charles Koch Institute

Tim Hoefer: Executive director of Empire Center for Public Policy, a project of the Manhattan Institute, member of SPN and ALEC, and funded by the Bradley Foundation among others

George Coates: Chairman of the Board at the Commonwealth Foundation. 

Your Free To Teach postcard is, in short, the product of the same old network of anti-union far-right folks who have been constantly looking for ways to slap teachers down and put them in their place. A full frontal attack on unions has not been as successful in Pennsylvania as it has been in states like Wisconsin. 

The website is loaded with plenty of reasons you just don't need the union. Liability insurance is "redundant" because the employer's coverage should take care of it (because when it's time for lawyers, you can count on the district to look out for teacher interests). Besides, you'll only need liability insurance if you commit a crime. And the union has to give you a lawyer for free anyway. If these folks can convince enough Pennsylvania teachers to be free riders, unions will weaken, losing both ability to negotiate for better local contracts and less ability to advocate for teachers and public education in Harrisburg (not to mention being hampered in providing that "free" legal representation free riders depend on). That's the goal here.

The good news, so far, is that the post-Janus apocalypse that many unions braced for has not actually happened, and actions by teachers in states like West Virginia have shown that even if you could disempower the union, teachers will find a way to push back if you push them too far. 

When you get the card, you'll see that Williams has provided a handy email address. Feel free to ask him about the time that he angrily gave back the raise that the union negotiated form him, or if, now that he's retired, he's planning on doing without that pension that the union won him (actually, he may be well enough paid that he doesn't need it). But at a minimum, you can safely throw your invitation to union in the trash. 

Because, look-- you will never find me serving as an unconditional cheerleader for PSEA, and local leadership can be a crapshoot. But if a teacher's plan is to depend on their own negotiating prowess to get a personal awesome contract, or they're just going to trust folks like the Kochs and the DeVos family to look out for their best interests--well, that's a bad plan. 

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