Public employees across America are growing weary of unions that do not represent their interests, says Elisabeth Kines, the national executive director of Americans for Fair Treatment

Kines helps public sector employees, such as teachers, to understand their First Amendment rights and to stand up to union pressure. She says conservatives used to be the only ones reaching out for help. Now, she receives lots of calls from politically liberal individuals who have been abused or bullied by their union and are asking for help.

Kines joins “The Daily Signal Podcast,” to explain how unions have come to yield the power they do and what Americans for Fair Treatment is doing to serve the needs of public sector employees. 

We also cover these stories: 

  • President Joe Biden announces a number of new executive actions intended to curb gun violence.
  • In March, an estimated 172,000 migrants sought to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
  • The gap in Americans’ political party affiliation is wider today than it has been since 2012, according to a new Gallup poll.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.

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Virginia Allen: I am so pleased to be joined by Elisabeth Kines, the national executive director of Americans for Fair Treatment. Elisabeth, welcome to the show.

Elisabeth Kines: Oh, thanks for having me. It’s really great to be here.

Allen: To begin, could you just explain a little bit of the mission of Americans for Fair Treatment and then what it is that you do as the national executive director?

Kines: Yeah. Americans for Fair Treatment is a fairly new organization. We work with public sector workers, specifically state and local employees, primarily in Pennsylvania and New York, and we educate them on their First Amendment rights as it pertains to union membership.

We like to say we help people move from a place of union dependence to union independence. And we also, from time to time, we’ll offer counsel and assistance for folks who are looking to form an independent local union.

Allen: That’s excellent. That’s such a needed and specific, really, field, especially right now. We’re hearing so much about unions. In your position as the national executive director, what role do you play within that larger mission that Americans for Fair Treatment has?

Kines: Yeah. So, a lot of my background is working with startups, actually, in the entertainment and tech industry. The bulk of my day to day is handled with operations, kind of building the infrastructure of our organization so that we can be a truly national organization.

We have a Slack channel internally and I say that my bio is “I herd cats.” I feel like a lot of times I’m managing relationships internally and externally. I work with a lot of national partners and then state partners. And then from time to time, I am on the phone assisting workers who are interested in resigning their union membership or opting out. Every day is a different day and I love it. I love it that way.

Allen: How exactly did you get involved with this issue? Especially because, like you said, your career really started in the music industry, correct?

Kines: That’s right. I moved to Los Angeles and in 2001, after I actually got a journalism degree and I went to work for the publicity department of a record label, and unions didn’t impact my daily life as far as my job, but I lived in a city where everybody seemed to be in TV and movie production. And I saw firsthand what unions did to an industry and then a city and then a state.

So I lived in California for about 12 years and over that time, it was just fascinating to me to see the power of these … primarily private sector unions that I saw, but things like [the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists] or the Writers Guild.

But I would see my friends deal firsthand with this frustration of these massive organizations that were not representing them. And there was really nothing they could do. They couldn’t work if they weren’t a member of the union. And that really impacted me.

I’ve always been fascinated by public policy and politics. And I just, I started to see all these dots kind of connect and it all went back to the role of unions in America.

And I think a lot of people—I was this way, I thought of unions as something that was sort of a factory floor type of need. And I thought of Sally Field [in] “Norma Rae” with the big “union” cardboard sign, fighting for her fellow workers.

But what I saw in my day-to-day life was very different. These were affluent college-educated workers who were held back by these really large, special-interest groups that were unions.

So when I left tech, when I left California and moved back East, I decided I want to be a part of making work work again for these different workers and specifically public sector unions.

What I saw in California obviously was private sector. That was the movie industry, [it] is not a public entity. But when I did more research, I learned that public sector unions—so these are the unions that represent teachers and state workers and local municipal workers, that actually represents the largest unionized workforce in America. And so it was just mind-boggling to me as I started to do my own research.

So I, after a few years working in state policy for two different think tanks, I decided to devote my career to helping public sector workers learn how to exercise the First Amendment right and to learn that there are options. They don’t have to stay in these situations where they’re represented by these very political organizations that may not truly represent the individual worker.

Allen: And how have unions become so political? Because I think, as you were talking about, for many Americans, we kind of picture these unions as being something that is trying to protect the safety of those individuals who are on the floor of some big manufacturing company or something like that.

What was the original intent of public sector unions? And then what has changed over the years to get to where we are?

Kines: Yeah. I think the original intent, actually, public sector unions were created by an executive order by President [John F.] Kennedy—this was a long, long time ago.

And I think the intent was really just to give these workers a voice to ensure that they had, to be honest, I’m not quite sure as far as what the working conditions were that were so bad that would require a union. But I think part of it was to ensure that these workers had really solid benefits.

And a lot of times people who enter public service, they commit their entire career to serving the public. And with that, a lot of times they’re paid less than people in the private sector. If you’ve got a secretary who works in state government, a lot of times they’re going to make less money than someone in the private sector who works maybe at a corporation.

I think the original intent—though I was not there for the signing of that executive order—was to make sure that these truly public servants were taken care of. That they had good benefits and could count on our solid retirement plan.

From there, there was one political party that specifically looked at this as an opportunity to sort of mobilize and organize specifically women, immigrants, and racial minorities.

So that’s kind of what we’ve seen in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, all the way up to today. A specific way, because I get asked this a lot, public sector unions give a lot of money to political candidates, I’ll give you an example.

President [Joe] Biden, who is obviously in office now, actually got more money from teachers unions than any other union.

A lot of times when we think of President Biden, we might think of him giving a speech on a factory floor in Pennsylvania. But the reality is the bulk of his union support as far as monetary support has come from teachers unions and public sector unions [that] spent just over $14 million in lobbying in 2020.

And then on top of that, on top of the lobbying expenditures, they’re supporting different candidates. That could be presidential. It could be local.

I lived in Connecticut for a while and I saw this firsthand, even at school boards, you would see union-backed candidates. The way that they get involved in politics is very clear, a lot of it’s money and then they have training programs for new candidates and then they will support a candidate publicly.

It’s sort of this complicated web that is very expensive. And I think the issue for a public sector worker is that this is tax money. Instead of the money that was spent on Biden’s presidential campaign going to raise teacher salaries or to support teachers in the classroom, the union is taking those dues or that PAC money and giving it to a politician.

I think the workers that I work with from day to day, the teachers and state and local employees, that’s where the rub is. They are very upset that their money is spent on something without their consent that does not improve their working conditions.

Allen: As you talk with these individuals, is that the main reason why they want out? Why they no longer want to be a part of the union is because they’re seeing their dues go to maybe a politician who they don’t agree with or a cause that they don’t support?

Kines: I would say that’s the No. 1 reason. But there was a Supreme Court decision in 2018 that is often referred to in our work, it was the Janus v. AFSCME decision. This was a gentleman named Mark Janus, who was from Illinois, and he, exactly what you said, opposed the political nature of unions and the way that they spent money.

But what’s interesting—so, that decision was in 2018. And I would say the first year and a half, everybody I worked with, I’ve worked with dozens and dozens and dozens of state and local employees who wanted to leave their unions. And the story was kind of always the same: “I don’t like how they’re spending money.”

Lately, however, I’m getting these wild stories from people who will talk about being bullied in the workplace, they’re being denied. A lot of times you might have seniority, especially for a teacher, you’ve been there X number of years, and with that come different privileges or where your classroom is, things like that. They’re being denied that.

There’s a lot of this just internal favoritism within the unions. And so you have this very corrupt system that’s taken hold and it’s upsetting.

So one thing that’s been fascinating is I’ve seen a trend from a lot of the people I worked with in the beginning were usually very conservative workers, very conservative individuals. Now I get a lot of calls from people who say, “I’m a Democrat,” or, “I’m a classic liberal,” or, “I’m a,” fill in the blank, “and normally I would like a union, but—” and then they share a story of how they’ve been abused or bullied or harassed or whatever’s happened.

What’s interesting is now I think a lot of people are kind of looking around—particularly in light of what’s going on with the school closings—and they’re seeing:

My union, I had a real grievance, I had a real problem at work and I went to my union. I followed the protocol. I asked for help and my union didn’t help me. But I see my union steward or my union president on the nightly news talking about issues that impact people in another city that don’t impact me. They’re talking about defunding the police. That doesn’t impact me as a teacher in the classroom.

It’s been a real sea change, particularly since the pandemic started, in the types of employees and teachers that have been reaching out to us for help to leave their union.

Allen: Wow. And that’s definitely, it’s such a critical issue. It’s something we’ve talked a lot about on this podcast is this whole issue of classrooms and school reopenings and teachers feeling like they don’t have a voice, really, amid the unions being so powerful.

What can be done to preserve the free speech rights of individual teachers who don’t support the public policy stance of their union leadership?

Kines: I think the easiest and sort of first step that a teacher could take specifically, or any employee at a school district, would be you can opt out or resign your union membership. That’s your right, that’s your First Amendment right to do so.

If someone has trouble opting out, I think that’s where we step in and we can help either walk them through the process or we can assist in the process or we can point them to free resources—a lot of time, free legal help to make that opt out happen and those dues stop coming out of their check.

But more than that, I think there is power, and just like the union says, “There’s power in solidarity. There’s power in transparency. There’s power in people getting together and talking, sharing information, but also standing up for what is right.” And I think that’s what we’re seeing a lot of.

AFFT, as we call ourselves, because Americans for Fair Treatment is the longest email address I’ve ever had, at AFFT we actually have a membership program. It’s a free membership program for state and local employees.

As part of that, we just encourage our members to talk to one another and then we try and share their stories. Sometimes we might help them write an op-ed for a paper or we might write their story or kind of a testimonial for our website.

And what we’re seeing is people are encouraged by the stories of others and they get strength from the stories of others and knowing that they’re not alone, that they experience, whether it’s, again, like I said, the bullying, the shame, the lack of representation, that they are not the only teacher facing that or the only state or local worker facing that.

I would say, if there’s a teacher listening today and your first step could be try and opt out, if you need help, we’re here to help you. And then from there, talk to your colleagues or reach out to us if you want to be connected. And from there, there are so many options.

I think one thing we’re seeing: An increase in desire is specifically in the Northeast.

People, they want to associate. That is a First Amendment right, the freedom to associate. But when you flip that over, you don’t have to associate. You shouldn’t be compelled to associate with a group that you don’t agree with.

What we’re seeing is, especially for workers in schools, who maybe are not teachers, but support staff, we’ve had quite a few people reach out to form local, independent unions. They believe in the power of association and working together for a common good, but they don’t want the politics.

That’s something that I think we’ll probably see more of. We’ll see more people say, “I like the idea of a union, just not my union.” It’s sort of like that sort of expression: “I love my congressman, but I hate Congress.” We’re seeing that happen a lot. And I would imagine, we’ll see an increase in that specifically on the West Coast and Northeast.

Allen: Yeah. Well, I think so many of these public sector employees, they just want to be able to do their job. Just do the job that they were hired to do and not get super involved in the politics. But is that even possible anymore that they can stay out of the politics if they don’t want to be a part of the union?

Kines: It’s very hard. I think a lot of times when I talk about unions—I worked for many years in California, but I was raised in South Carolina. And so when I talk to my family or my friends from back home, they immediately, I can see their eyes glaze over and they’re like, “Eh, we don’t have unions here. This isn’t a problem. Our government workers are not unionized. This isn’t a problem.”

And the reality is, even for a teacher in South Carolina where the union does not actively represent them in negotiations with the school district or with the state, the union is actually very involved in that state.

They have a chapter like the NEA has a chapter. The NEA, the National Education Association, is the largest teachers union in the country. And they have chapters in every state. And the chapter in South Carolina, the SCEA, is actually pretty active.

So what I see happening is whether teachers see it or not and whether they’re a member of the union or not, the teachers unions are inherently political and all of their activity is political. And so, really, the only way to step outside of that is to stop being a member of the union, not join a union.

We try to tell a lot of new teachers, “Think before you sign the member card because a lot of times now that member card’s for life. You’re signing language that you’ll pay dues as long as you’re employed.”

But I think outside of that, it’s, I think for teachers specifically, I think that’s how they can kind of push back, is to say, “I’m not going to be a part of this machine. I’m not going to write a check out of my paycheck to pay for union dues.”

But I think for the general public, the reality is unions are not only political in the classroom or with curriculum, but they’re very political with school district, school boards, what’s happening in the school district.

I think what would be important for people to understand is that this is not just something that impacts teachers who are a member of unions, this impacts every aspect of education, public education.

I think for teachers who want to step out of that, the best thing to do is to resign from their union and then, just like I said before, find solidarity and like-minded co-workers and speak up because until we break this system where the unions are bankrolling candidates for school board, they’re bankrolling candidates for local representation or federal representation, until we can break that, until the unions are no longer writing curriculum, like Common Core, this is a problem that will continue to exist.

And I think you’re going to see it in nonunionized counties like Fairfax County, Virginia. It’s playing out in a massive scale in that county and the union doesn’t even represent those teachers.

I think right now we’re at a really pivotal moment for teachers and parents, I would say, where they have to recognize the role that unions play and then they have to actively push back.

It seems like an overwhelming task, but it’s actually, I think unions didn’t get this way in a day and I think we can push back on them, little by little, every day and we can make a difference. I see it in all these parent groups around the country. And then I see, we get dozens and dozens and dozens of requests from teachers to push back.

I think the hard part is the media right now is not sharing those stories and that’s why I’m so glad to be here today to be able to share this whole other side that the union is not as powerful as I think that The New York Times might have you believe.

Allen: Yeah, yeah. How are you all getting those stories out? And how are you pushing back in order to really represent these teachers well, these individuals who work in the public sector well? And then are there specific states and policy issues that you’re really focused and targeted on this year?

Kines: I think the first thing is telling stories is so important. I think Joan Didion … once said, “We are wired to tell stories to kind of make sense of the world around us.” I think I may have butchered her quote, but it’s true. We as humans tell stories, that’s how we preserve history and make sense of what’s happening around us. We share experiences.

I think one thing for us as an organization is to tell the stories specifically right now of teachers and what their experience in a union is like. We might help write an op-ed, like I said before, or tell their story on our website or something like that.

But specifically, when you ask about states that we’re involved in, we are heavily involved in Pennsylvania and New York, but then we’ve also been quietly connecting teachers in Virginia with teachers in Pennsylvania and New York, so that they can hear firsthand these teachers in Virginia, what it’s really like to be a teacher in a unionized school.

What is it really like to have a union represent you at the bargaining table? To represent all the interests that are intertwined with your job? What classroom you get, your pension, your hourly wage or salary, whatever it is.

This other group is representing you and you’re no longer able to go straight to your employer to talk about issues or ideas that you may have related to your employment.

The first thing I think that we try to do is to tell these stories and to connect these people on the ground.

And then the second thing is, for people who are in places to make decisions, I think particularly lawmakers, municipal leaders, state leaders, people who are actively engaged in policy, we also try to share these stories and then connect these decision-makers with the teacher or with the school employee, because what happens a lot of times I see is that the union will come in. I saw this so much.

I lived in Connecticut for a couple years, and I would see this in Hartford, the union would come up with a bus full of people. … All these people would get matching T-shirts and a free lunch and they’d be asked to stand around the legislative office building or the state capitol on a day that maybe a vote or a hearing was taking place that impacted the union.

And I remember a lot of times I would see these people and I would just say, “Hey, what’s your name? What do you do? What are you here for?” And I don’t think I ever had a worker, an employee tell me, “I am here because I am passionate about,” fill in the blank. They would all say, “I got a free day off work and a trip up here if I would join the union on something. I’m not sure what they’re doing.”

So, for us, we have to connect teachers who are in the classroom who’ve been oppressed by unions with decision-makers. That’s a big part for us. We’re not really a policy organization. We don’t lobby, we don’t write bills, but we do have this membership program.

A lot of our work has been just helping groups like the Commonwealth Foundation or the Empire Center for Public Policy, these are the two think tanks in New York and Pennsylvania, connecting them with teachers on the ground so that they can then take that teacher in to meet with a lawmaker. Because I think it’s important that lawmakers and people writing policy hear the stories firsthand of the people that the policy impacts.

How often is it that someone makes a policy in a silo and they don’t see the ripple effect? When you give this power to a special interest like a government union, you’re stripping away individual rights of public servants.

That’s something that we’re very passionate about.

Allen: What is one of the stories that has personally impacted you most, a story of a teacher?

Kines: There’s a woman in Pennsylvania, actually, [whose] story is not shocking. I have stories of sexual assaults that have gone unchecked and horrific abuse. But there’s a woman in Pennsylvania [who’s] an AP teacher. She’s very passionate about the subject she teaches.

Actually, I got to know her really well at the beginning of the pandemic, and her union stepped in and told the school district the teachers were not allowed to talk to the students or they were not allowed to use a certain platform to teach the students from home, or all these rules.

And this teacher, one day she was near tears and she just said, “My AP students have an exam. They have worked all year for this exam. This is a big deal.”

So she contacted the parents. This was a small class, this specific class. She contacted the parents and basically said, “Can we arrange a time over,” I think they maybe use Google Hangouts, “for me to help these kids to keep learning?”

She went above and beyond because she cared for these students. And so then, week after week, this was the beginning of the pandemic when we were all afraid, we all were not sure what was going to happen, but the union saw this as a land grab. They saw this as a chance for them to get more power or to enact more social justice reforms or whatever it was they were trying to do.

And this teacher, through her network of a couple other Americans for Fair Treatment members, basically, they just said, “We’re going offline. We’re going to do this with parental consent.” Their principals consented and they kept teaching their students. And then everything went back online and they were able to use a new system to teach kids every day.

But I was so moved by her loyalty, also her allegiance to these kids. This dedication that these kids were not going to be left behind. And the fact that she worked so hard and such long hours, she was writing all kinds of special lesson plans in the evening and on the weekends.

And I just, I kept thinking, this is such a small, that’s not a scandalous story that’s going to make the cover of The Washington Post, but that’s the story I believe of thousands of teachers across the country and unions saying, “We are not going to go back into the classroom until we defund police or have a $15 minimum wage,” or you fill in the blank with whatever social justice issue, they’re depriving these teachers of their gift to teach.

That, to me, is heartbreaking. And so that woman has been kind of an inspiration for me on a regular basis.

Allen: Yeah, wow. That’s incredible. Every now and then you hear the stories of teachers like that and it really is so, so inspiring to see individuals that are just putting their students before everything else. So powerful.

For those that want to get involved, that want to draw on the resources that Americans for Fair Treatment has to offer, how can they do that?

Kines: Yeah. We have website, it’s actually about to be redesigned, so stay tuned, but our URL is americansforfairtreatment.org. You’re always welcome to visit there. But the other thing is, if someone’s listening and they have a question or they have a concern, you can always email us. Our email address is [email protected]

We get all kinds of really creative questions, really out there questions, and we have a staff that’s kind of scattered about the East Coast and we have a staffer out in Utah.

We love interacting with people and we actually get a lot of requests right now from parents who are kind of curious, “How can I get involved in pushing back on union involvement in my school district?” And so I just, I welcome if someone’s listening and they’re curious or they want to learn more, check out our website or email us. We’re happy to help with anything.

Allen: Excellent. Elisabeth, thank you so much for joining us and thank you for the work that you’re doing.

Kines: Thank you.