Many on the right and left believe that the Janus Supreme Court decision will have a significant impact on reducing the teacher union role in public education and union political power in general. The decision overrules a former Supreme Court decision, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, in 1977 that held that (primarily blue states) public unions could collect “agency fees” from non-members. The Abood decision said that since all workers benefit from the union negotiated contract, they can be forced to pay for this benefit through an agency fee. Before Janus this was common practice in 22 states. The Janus decision overturned this, in part highlighting how difficult it is to separate a union’s work negotiating contracts, and its participation in political activities. For the record, I have never thought it fair for unions or employers to tax employees for their benefit without the employee’s consent, even if it can be argued that employees derive a benefit.
At this point, it seems the general consensus is that Janus will accelerate the teacher union demise. While this latest decision will have a direct short-term impact on reducing union political support (see mounting lawsuits in California and New York) and finances, I suspect on balance it will lead to unions being more effective in serving their members and organizing in general, despite losing a relatively easy income source. Here’s why-
- The growing blue wave: The political landscape is shifting dramatically with growing inequality, political polarization and the rise of Trump. Unions like SEIU and others that capitalize on a growing number of workers’ inability to buy a house, have quality healthcare, schools, safe retirement, and a living wage will grow as employers and the government continue to undermine the shrinking middle and lower income class in America. Unions will organize and step up. We are seeing the beginning of this in charter schools, Silicon Valley and other sectors that most would never guess would be ripe for organizing. Apparently, the kids are embracing socialism in ways not seen in fifty years here, this has to be good for unions and teacher unions in particular.
- Teacher Unions, Superintendents and School Boards are more similar than dissimilar: The power of teacher unions in “right to work” states like Nevada and Colorado while arguably less than in states like California and Massachusetts is still so great that there remain few substantial differences between these states in terms of teacher work rules, compensation, or power within the Democratic party on election day. Effective unions will take some tips from their colleagues in Las Vegas which is one of the strongest union towns in America in the context of a fairly “red” libertarian state, Nevada.
- Teacher Unions will have to work harder: Janus will force unions that have been lazy in terms of collecting dues, or who have relied on transfers of money from their national associations, without engaging members to be proactive in adapting to better serving members so they actively support the unions. Unions in many places will become more focused and centered on better representing their members’ interests when they can’t rely on forced union dues.
- Teachers (and their unions) are gaining more support from voters: As we have seen in the protests in West Virginia and Oklahoma, not exactly the epicenters of liberal political movements, teachers and their unions are getting more support. Both states supported pay increases and more teacher unions are using their power to call for greater wage increases even in conservative, low tax districts and states. All of this may be more related to the first point on growing inequality in the country but more policy makers seem to recognizing that teachers should not have to hold down two jobs to pay the rent.
- Teacher union politics are going local: It seems that some teacher unions, Clark County/Las Vegas being the largest district-level union that decided to break free from their national parent are focusing more of their resources locally. While this will mean fewer resources for National Education Association, it may allow the locals to focus on what matters most to them and possibly be more successful. I suspect that union dues are probably more effectively used locally to support local or state elections than focused on what is happening in DC. After all, education policy is mostly set by school districts and states, not Congress.
In contrast to many of my education reform friends, I have never thought that teacher unions were the primary barrier to getting more high performing public schools for the most disadvantaged students. Indeed, I believe teacher unions have done much more good than harm for public education historically (e.g. pushing for higher teacher pay and more funding on public education). At the same time, I disagree with unions push back against many policies I think are critical to improving outcomes for kids, including most forms of accountability and school choice. And while I find myself fighting with teacher unions on policy, I think students and the teaching profession would be worse off if we did not have teacher unions. Yes, teacher unions are one barrier but so are school boards, superintendents, along with all of our own paradigms for what school could be given our experience and expertise.
The Janus decision changes the rules for some teacher unions but it will not likely diminish their power or role in setting a state policy or school district the agenda for improving public education. I could be wrong, let’s check back in 2020.