The American Federation of Teachers, the new teachers' union in Utah, should be given greater freedom in soliciting new members and meeting with members during the school day, according to an opinion from the Utah attorney general's office.
"It clears up the question of whether the AFT can be completely frozen out," said Doug Bates of the Utah Office of Education, which requested the opinion. "It says they can't be."AFT Executive Director John Berg said the opinion will force the much larger Utah Education Association to stop using "scare tactics" to keep teachers from joining the AFT.
"The opinion appears to open that process up," Berg said. "The UEA has tried to negotiate a number of clauses to limit the AFT members' ability to talk to the organization."
But a UEA attorney says the opinion, if followed, would interject so much confusion into the educational system that he will recommend legislation to allow districts to award exclusive rights to a teachers' organization.
"I have recommended to the (UEA) board of directors that we pursue a public sector labor law to resolve the confusion," said Michael McCoy, UEA general counsel.
State School Supt. James Moss posed five questions to the attorney general having to do with a school district's responsibility to teachers' organizations. Moss wanted to know whether a school districts could grant one teachers' representative organization exclusive rights to use internal mail services, meet with teachers or represent teachers in grievance proceedings.
The opinion, signed by Attorney General David L. Wilkinson and two assistant attorneys general, says school districts may grant exclusive rights to an organization under certain circumstances. It says districts can give the UEA exclusive rights to building mail as long as there are other channels of communication open to the AFT, and as long as the UEA does not use it to solicit new members or promulgate union ideology. The opinion would also give the UEA the exclusive right to meet with teachers during the school day, as long as the discussions are not for purposes of solicitation.
However, the opinion says AFT members may consult with their representatives after or before school. It also says that AFT members have the right to be represented by their own organization in any grievance procedure.
Traditionally, both associations go after members at the beginning of the school year with the victor earning exclusive rights throughout that year. Educators have felt that extracurricular activities such as membership drives were best completed early so that teachers could then concentrate on teaching.
The 14,000-member UEA has been and will probably continue to be for some time the winner in every school district in the state. But McCoy says the opinion will open the door to year-round membership drives and create confusion in the schools.
"They (the AFT) will be going to every school every day to get people to join," McCoy said. "And we will have to go to every school every day to counter what the AFT is doing."
But Berg thinks the opinion merely puts the AFT on more equal footing.
"It will make it easier for us," he said. "Instead of arguing over whether we have the right to be there, we will be arguing over the real issues."
He also said he thinks some parts of the opinion are subject to interpretation. For example, he believes it would be discriminatory to allow a UEA representative to meet with members during the school day while refusing to extend the same privilege to the AFT representative. He also said a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling may make it equally discriminatory to refuse to let the AFT use the building mail.