On Monday February 26, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Janus v. AFSCME, a case that will determine the future of public sector unions in America. In between lesson planning, grading, field trips, and everything else on your plate, it’s easy to see how this case could slip under your radar. Don’t let it. Janus v. AFSCME has the potential to negatively impact our unions, our profession, and our students. Make sure you know the facts of what’s at stake in this case and what we can all do to make unions stronger by engaging and supporting them to be more democratic, diverse, and student focused.
- What is a “free-rider?” In 1977, the Supreme Court ruled that workers could opt-out of being a union member and paying full union dues. However, because these workers benefit from the contract negotiated by the union, they were still required to pay a fee to the union to cover the costs of collective bargaining. This fee is called a “fair-share” or “agency fee,” and prevents workers from becoming “free-riders” who enjoy the benefits of the union without paying for it. In states that allow collective bargaining, all public employees, including teachers, benefit from the union’s work, which is why everyone contributes to pay for it. And it’s important to note that unions are already prevented from using fair-share fees for political activity, like campaign contributions or legislative lobbying. The plaintiff in Janus v. AFSCME, a state employee from Illinois named Mark Janus, argues that he shouldn’t have to pay the fair-share fee, asserting that it is unconstitutional to require public employees to contribute to a union.
- What do you have to lose? Both teachers and students lose out when unions are weakened. In states where unions are strong, teacher pay is higher, and benefits like health care and retirement are better. Data clearly show that students perform better where teachers have higher compensation, because higher salaries attract more qualified people to the profession and help to keep them there. Furthermore, teachers unions can take stances on important issues and policies that directly impact students, from protecting education funding to increasing guidance counselors and improving school climate.
- Déjà vu all over again. This isn’t the first time in recent history that the Supreme Court will hear a case challenging the requirement to pay fair-share fees. Conservative organizations like the National Right to Work Legal Defense Fund and the Center for Individual Rights have been pushing for the Court to review the issue of fair-share for a long time. In 2016, a teacher in California brought Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a near identical case, to the Supreme Court. Like Janus, Friedrichs argued that any form of collective bargaining was inherently political speech and that forcing workers to pay a fee to the union infringes workers’ First Amendment rights. However, Justice Scalia passed away before the ruling, leaving the Court with a 4-4 tie vote. With Justice Gorsuch's appointment to the bench, it is expected that the Court will rule in favor of Janus. A ruling is expected in May or June.
- Unions lift the voices of teachers. Unions have estimated they will see a 20-40 percent drop in membership - and therefore revenue - if members are able to enjoy benefits without paying their fair-share. Weaker teachers unions translate to diminished power for teachers and fewer chances to elevate our voices, whether that means negotiating working conditions or calling attention to issues impacting their students.
- Unions should reflect their members. The survival of unions will hinge on their ability to retain members. If the court rules in favor of Janus, and unions can no longer rely on compulsory dues, then unions must work to engage with their members more deeply, to provide services that teachers want, and to take positions that are based on the voices and perspectives of all of their members. To understand the full range of teachers’ educational priorities and advocate on their behalf, unions will need to more actively solicit teachers perspectives through surveys, focus groups, and grassroots organizing. We believe that for unions to remain strong they need to become more democratic, more diverse, and more student focused. Janus doesn’t have to spell the end of our unions - but all of us have to step up to make our unions stronger by being active, attending meetings, voting, calling for reforms to make participation easier, and running for leadership positions to ensure your voices are represented.
- Now is the time for teachers to get involved. In our Declaration of Principles and Beliefs, E4E members proudly state our commitment to protecting the right to collectively bargain and our desire to be deeply engaged in our unions. Now more than ever, it is critical for teachers to actively strengthen and shape our unions by engaging to ensure your dues are used to represent your perspectives, values, and priorities. It is on all of us to both ensure teachers stay involved our unions and to ensure our unions engage with and represent the voices and values of all of its members.