This article by Megan Chalfant and F. Vincent Vernuccio originally appeared on the Workers For Opportunity site on April 7.

When Indiana teachers look at their union membership forms this fall, they’ll see something new.

In readable text in 14 point bold, there will be these words: The State of Indiana wishes you to be aware that you have the First Amendment right…to abstain from joining and paying dues to a union.

That assurance comes from Sen. 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 gives teachers the freedom of expression that is rightfully theirs. It also offers clarification on a bill passed by the Indiana Legislature in 2021.

Last year, policymakers determined that teachers could decide each year whether to join and pay union dues, a concept known as “membership”. Many teachers had found the previous system, the opt-out, to be onerous and legalistic. Little information was available on how union members could withdraw from the union, and arbitrary windows limited when teachers could exercise their right to leave the union. Navigating the process was tricky and often took time that busy teachers simply didn’t have.

That’s why Indiana lawmakers have implemented an opt-in system. By giving teachers the opportunity each year to review whether or not they want to continue paying union dues, the 2021 law affirmed teachers’ power of choice. He also demanded that membership documents remind teachers that their First Amendment right to free speech means they have the freedom to join — or not join — the union.

This is where things got legalistic.

Months after the 2021 bill was signed into law, an Indiana court issued an injunction declaring that the language informing teachers of their First Amendment rights was itself a violation of their First Amendment rights. While reading, “I I am aware that I have a First Amendment right…” the court said, with the document purporting to speak on behalf of the teachers.

So this year, with SB 297, lawmakers delivered a simple rewrite, “The Indiana State wants to make you aware that you have a right to the first amendment…” Problem solved.

Some might roll their eyes at the time and the numbers taken to satisfy the legal purists on this point. Others may remember the old adage that “the devil is in the details”. But here’s the thing: the court was right. No one has the inherent right to speak on behalf of teachers. And that is precisely why laws that protect teachers’ freedom of expression are important.

Union membership is a choice, not a requirement, for Indiana teachers. Annual registration will help end the maze of red tape that has trapped teachers into continued union membership when they would rather leave. This means unions can no longer assume that having the power to collect dues from a teacher for one year means they have the right to continue collecting dues in perpetuity.

It took two years, legislative leadership, a court ruling and a bit of red ink, but the heads of state persevered. With SB 297 now enacted, Indiana reaffirms that when it comes to union representation and payment of dues, teachers and only teachers 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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