When Indiana teachers review their union membership form this fall, they’ll see something new.
In legible, 14-point bold text will be these words: The State of Indiana wishes to make you aware that you have a First Amendment right…to refrain from joining and paying dues to a union.
That assurance comes courtesy of Senator Phillip Boots (IN-23) and Rep. Chuck Goodrich (IN-29), who sponsored SB 297, and thanks to Governor Holcomb, who signed the bill into law this week. The law empowers teachers with the free speech that is rightfully theirs. It also offers clarification on a bill that passed the Indiana Legislature in 2021.
Policymakers last year determined that teachers could decide annually whether to join and pay dues to a union, a concept known as “opting in.” Many teachers had found the previous system, opting out, to be onerous and legalistic. Little information was available about how union members could opt out, and arbitrary windows limited when teachers could exercise their right to leave the union. Navigating the process was tricky, and it often demanded time that busy teachers simply didn’t have.
That’s why Indiana legislators implemented an opt-in system. By giving teachers an opportunity every year to consider whether or not they want to continue paying union dues, the 2021 law affirmed teachers’ power of choice. It also required that the opt-in paperwork remind teachers that their First Amendment right to free speech means that they have the freedom to join – or not join – the union.
That’s where things got legalistic.
Months after the 2021 bill was signed into law, an Indiana court issued an injunction saying that the language notifying teachers of their First Amendment rights was itself a violation of their First Amendment rights. By reading, “I am aware that I have a First Amendment right…” the court said, the document presumed to speak for teachers.
So this year, with SB 297, legislators delivered a simple re-write, “The State of Indiana wishes to make you aware that you have a First Amendment right…” Problem solved.
Some might roll their eyes at the time and manpower taken to satisfy legal purists on this point. Others may recall the old adage that “The devil is in the details.” But here’s the thing: The court was right. Nobody has an intrinsic right to speak on behalf of teachers. And that is precisely why laws that protect teachers’ free speech are important.
Union membership is a choice, not a requirement, for Indiana teachers. Annual opt-in will help end the maze of red tape that has trapped teachers into continuing union membership when they would prefer to leave. It means that unions can no longer assume that having the authority to collect dues from a teacher one year means they’re entitled to continue collecting dues in perpetuity.
It took two years, legislative leadership, a court decision and a little red ink, but state leaders persevered. With SB 297 now signed into law, Indiana reaffirms that, when it comes to union representation and dues payment, it’s teachers and teachers alone who have the final say.
Megan Chalfant is an elementary school teacher in Dunkirk, Indiana.
F. Vincent Vernuccio is senior labor policy advisor for Workers for Opportunity.
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