Michael Costanza, a sixth-grade teacher at North Stonington Elementary School and former reporter for The Day, never wanted to be part of a union, but for most of his sixteen year teaching career he was required to pay an agency fee to the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, even though he declined to be a dues-paying member.
“I’ve always been uncomfortable with the political activism of the NEA,” Costanza said of the CEA’s national affiliate. “I’ve been frustrated to see unions work against issues like school choice. I think the unions have it backwards. We know that schools exist to serve our students, they seem to think that students exist to serve the best interest of the unions.”
That all changed in 2018 when the Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that requiring public employees to pay dues or fees to a union as a condition of employment violated public sector workers’ freedom of speech rights because it essentially required them to subsidize political speech they may not agree with.
Now, Costanza has started a private Facebook group called Constitution State Educators with the sole purpose of letting teachers know that they can leave their union and not lose their pay or benefits.
“We want to spread the word to as many teachers and other school employees as possible in Connecticut about their Janus rights to choose whether or not to belong to the unions,” Costanza said in an interview. “We want to correct the misconceptions that a lot of teachers have, largely in part to the unions misleading them about their Janus rights.”
Since starting the group on January 11, Constitution State Educators now has 231 members, adding 65 in the last week.
While that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the 51,000 teachers working in Connecticut, the vast majority of whom are members of either the CEA or the American Federation of Teachers, Costanza believes there is room to grow, particularly as some teachers push back against COVID safety measures and mandates pushed by the unions and state government.
“We’re reaching out to as many teachers as possible who are frustrated with how the unions let us down by not standing up for us against these mandates that are hurting both us and our students’ mental health, and to let them know they have choices,” Costanza said.
Costanza says he began seeing other teachers leave the union and join alternative non-union associations such as the American Association of Educators over the course of the last year and believes it’s related to how teacher unions, both in the state and nationally, have reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think the straw that broke the camel’s back is how the unions caved, and in some ways even invited, mandates from Gov. Lamont in regards to vaccines and weekly testing, but, more importantly, the way they caved with the mandates for masking our students in school and just the overall level of fear they have stoked in our schools among our students,” Costanza said.
On January 12, the CEA encouraged its members to wear black in protest, saying that Connecticut schools were not adequately supplied with testing kits and N95 masks and arguing schools should be allowed to shift to remote learning for short periods of time if surging COVID cases cause teacher shortages.
But some teachers – led by Ellington High School history teacher Aaron Hoffman — pushed back by wearing red, arguing that remote learning is harming kids’ mental health and that schools should remain open for learning.
Nationally, the Chicago Teachers Union, an affiliate of the AFT, made headlines in a very public battle with Mayor Lori Lightfoot over returning to classrooms amid a surge in the COVID Omicron variant that resulted in schools being temporarily closed down.
“A lot of teachers around the state don’t want to contribute money to unions that aren’t representing our best interests or the interests of our students,” Costanza said. “We need to stand up for our students and for ourselves.”
Since the Janus decision in 2018, the National Education Association – the national affiliate of the CEA – has lost 92,826 members or 3 percent of their membership, according to federal documents. That figure doesn’t include the 87,764 agency fee payers the union listed in 2017, who ceased to be counted or charged agency fees following the Supreme Court ruling.
But the loss of members and agency fee payers hasn’t affected NEA’s bottom line: the national union took in $203 million more between 2017 and 2021, according to federal documents, a 35 percent increase.
Public-sector unions have countered that teachers and other public employees who leave the union and don’t pay dues are essentially freeloading on the collective bargaining agreements secured by union representatives.
Since unions maintain exclusive representation for employees in a workplace, non-members are still entitled to all the same pay, benefits and, if necessary, union representation for grievance and disciplinary issues.
But Costanza says it’s the unions who are freeloading. “They freeload by definition with their monopoly on bargaining rights and they’re using members’ money to push political agendas that many of their members don’t believe in,” Costanza said.
Costanza says that the Association of American Educators and the Christian Educators Association will be giving back-to-back presentations on what they can offer to Connecticut teachers on the first of February. Both groups are non-union associations. The AAE offers insurance and legal protections for teachers, while the Christian Educators Association represents teachers largely in Christian schools.
Despite having never been a dues-paying union member, Constanza says that he’s always enjoyed a good relationship with his local union, even helping draft language for his local union’s contract.
“The silver lining in all this is that maybe our effort will make the unions work a little bit harder to show that they’re willing to represent all of their members fairly and not just some,” Costanza said. “Maybe this will be good for the unions, maybe it will improve their level of service and they’ll come out stronger from this.”
The CEA and AFT-CT did not respond to request for comment.
**Meghan Portfolio contributed to this article**