Union Dues Required, Competence Ignored
Charleen Sciambi, a 13-year veteran California teacher honored in 1983 as the state’s best “Foreign Language Teacher of the year,” was fired for refusing to pay union dues in a lump sum in advance or by payroll deduction as demanded by union officials. Mrs. Sciambi successfully appealed her dismissal in the courts, only to be faced with a new school board decision (supported by the California State legislature) to automatically deduct the coercive fees from her paycheck and give them directly to the union. She resigned from teaching rather than be “reduced to playing the role of a beggar at the union’s back door.” The following interview tells her story.
CEAFU: Why did you resign from teaching after 13 years of highly successful years in the same school system?
Sciambi: I resigned because my employer, the Fremont Unified School district in California, demanded that I support the Fremont Unified District Teachers Association (FUDTA/NEA) union in order to hold my teaching position. It became apparent that my performance was not the important issue, but rather the compliance with “agency shop.” I do not approve of forcing free people to do anything against their will. The basic tenets upon which this nation was founded find that idea abhorrent.
CEAFU: The “agency shop” clause was agreed to by your school board members two years prior to your resignation. Why didn’t you resign then?
Sciambi: I did not resign then because I wanted to try to remedy the situation. There is enough Don Quixote in me that I thought that if I worked hard enough, I could convince the school board to delete the forced dues clause from the subsequent contract. After two years of making my best effort in that regard, I knew that I was indeed “dreaming the impossible dream and fighting the unbeatable foe.” Not only did they negotiate the new contract with “agency shop,” but they changed the present contract that had only two and a half months to run so that the union could have my wages confiscated without my permission. I resigned before the signing of the new contract because at that point I had no way to fight the union’s demand.
CEAFU: How did you feel when the FUDTA/CTA/NEA union officials demanded that dues be deducted from your paycheck?
Sciambi: I was demoralized. I did not want to believe that my employer had so little regard for me as a human being, as an American citizen, and as an exemplary employee. When I signed my first contract, I made a commitment. I thought in exchange, the other party would give me the atmosphere in which I might become better and better at my work. Instead, they did quite the opposite by agreeing to a compulsory unionism contract. It was the biggest disappointment of my life.
CEAFU: Did you have any reactions from your students, their parents, or your fellow teachers when your resignation was made public?
Sciambi: I had many supportive reactions in the form of cards, letters, telephone calls and even invitations to share some time together. My students basically had two messages: they were sorry for themselves that I would not be returning to them for the next school year, but even with that in mind, they were glad for me that I would no longer be enduring the pain and distress of the last two years. Parents and my colleagues were generally depressed by their inability to fend off the political pressures affecting the students. They also conveyed to me a sense of personal loss.
CEAFU: What was the reaction of union officials?
Sciambi: They made a target of me in terms of constant harassing letters. At first they attempted to force an arbitration board on me, and then they forced my employer to enact the process of dismissal which ultimately resulted in making me suffer through a court case. The court’s decision was in my behalf, but I received the good news at the end of January after I had worried about being fired since the middle of October. By the middle of February, I was aware that the union push for automatic deduction of the forced dues in my district was on the way.
CEAFU: You were named “Outstanding Foreign Language Teacher of 1983” by the California Foreign Language Teaching Association. How do union officials justify their emphasis on payment of union dues rather than quality teaching?
Sciambi: They cannot. In fact, to my knowledge, they have not tried. Union officials totally ignore recognition for achievement. It is a mystery to me that all agencies, even my employer, do not pay much attention to quality teaching. It is ironic that this honor should come to me the year that I resigned. The award was great honor, one that I never expected to receive. California is a large state. There must be so many fine teachers. Union officials have not spoken a word as to my performance. Would you if you were they? They are hoping that everyone has forgotten about me by now.
CEAFU: What did you tell you board of education when you resigned?
Sciambi: I told them that when I decided to accept their offer of a teaching position, I arrived with my youth, my enthusiasm, my academic training, and my values. I believed that they would keep outside pressures from distracting me in my pursuit of excellence, that they would carry my banner, rejoice with me in my success, and protect me from outside interference. But it seems a third party was hired to “protect” me and left me playing the role of a beggar at the union’s back door. I didn’t need the union for anything. I stood on my performance.
I wanted them to know that I believe we teach best by example. I had endeavored to be an example to my students . . . an example of a mature, principled adult. I taught my students to stand tall, to be proud of a job well done, to guard their privacy and their freedoms, to be responsible for their own actions, to care profoundly about the terms upon which their lives are lived. But I could not ask them to look up to me if I allowed myself to be forced to my knees. I told them I could not face my students if I am not true to myself.
CEAFU: What did your experience teach you?
Sicambi: I can’t imagine how I would be now, were I still working for such an employer under such conditions. The emotional distress is almost indescribable. In retrospect, I would say that I am not sorry for what I tried to do. But until the citizens and parents care enough to spend the time necessary to watch over their public schools, the schools will continue to decline.
CEAFU: What was it you most wanted your students to understand about your resignation?
Sciambi: I wrote a letter to my students when I resigned so that they would know the truth. I always spoke the truth to them and I cared that they would understand my reasons and, not be deceived.
As I told them then, I believe there are sacred relationships in life and they and I had shared one. The relationship between teacher and student takes on its own very special character that includes caring, friendship, and trust. They deserved to be taught by those who merit their respect.
I told them my employer intended to confiscate my wages without my permission and that was the status of a slave.
I wanted them to understand that I could not return to them in September and teach them to stand tall as a free man or woman if I could not.