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“Is this Supreme Court decision the end of teachers unions?” asked an NPR article responding to last week’s shattering decision in Janus v. the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. In the 5-4 decision, the justices overturned an older ruling that said public sector unions could require non-union members to pay “fair share fees” as a condition of union representation for negotiating things that benefit all workers, such as work hours, pay, vacation time and grievance procedures. This will undoubtedly rob unions of fees from “free riders” who benefit from collective bargaining while not paying for the privilege.
Yet if the last 12 months of organizing by teachers’ unions across the country has shown us anything, it is that unions will not go quiet into the night. In the right-to-work states of West Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona, and Oklahoma, teachers have organized quite dramatically in regional and statewide strikes. With their actions, they grabbed headlines in national papers, prodded Republican leadership to action, and in some cases won long overdue concessions in their contracts. Teacher won pay raises in West Virginia, Arizona, and Oklahoma, and the legislature agreed to increase the amount of money in the Department of Education budget in Kentucky.
In fact, the Supreme Court decision might even spark more such actions: With fewer negotiating tools available to them, teachers may feel their only option is to strike. This is not a good outcome — for teachers; for students who spend much of their week in schools; for black people, who have higher rates of union membership than white people; the Democratic Party, which benefits from political contributions from unions and their boots on the ground; and for all of the rest of us, even if we don’t believe in unions. After all, collective bargaining gave us the weekend.
Among full-time wage and salary workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), union members had median usual weekly earnings of $1,041 in 2017, while those who were not union members had median weekly earnings of $829. Quite simply, union members earn more than their non-unionized counterparts. However, BLS also cited in the same report that black workers continued to have a higher union membership rate in 2017 (12.6 percent) than workers who were white (10.6 percent), Asian (8.9 percent), or Hispanic (9.3 percent). Black teachers have more at stake. Unions have protected black workers from the worst racial disparities in income.
In 2017, 7.2 million employees in the public sector belonged to a union, compared with 7.6 million workers in the private sector, according to BLS numbers. However, the union membership rate of public-sector workers (34.4 percent) was more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers (6.5 percent) in 2017. Consequently, this will be a major blow to those in government jobs with high unionization rates like protective services, library services and education. (The ruling does not affect private sector employees.)
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Teachers whose salaries and pensions aren’t keeping pace with the increasing cost of living will more likely opt not to pay union fees, including membership fees, for financial reasons rather than political ones. The certain loss of revenue will hinder unions’ ability to negotiate on behalf of teachers. Moreover, as unions also tend to be big supporters of Democratic politicians, it will also weaken Democrats’ ability to upend President Trump’s agenda, which unashamedly exalts the rich over working-class people. (Just take a look at the billionaires on his cabinet who helped shape it.) Unions mobilize their membership for the Democratic Party and funnel resources to Democratic candidates in important elections.
“Deprive [the] four biggest public unions of non-member fees and the $166 million they spent on federal candidates in 2016 would drop closer to $55 million,” according to a Politico analysis before the Supreme Court Decision.
Teachers don’t just help children develop into well-rounded adults, moral citizens and productive workers, they also influence local economies as significant members of the middle class. How we pay and treat teachers significantly shapes the communities our children live in. Those who advocate for teachers, also do so for the middle class in general. Likewise, activists who seek to erode teacher power and worker rights worsen conditions for students inside school and out. And the ruling affects black women most of all, who comprise a significant proportion of teachers in majority-black school districts.
Plus, this decision doesn’t look out for the next generation — the students of today may well be the teachers of tomorrow. And we kneecap them now in their ability to fight for decent working conditions and a living wage.
“A strong union and collective bargaining agreements are what help to ensure students receive the tools and resources they need to succeed in school and in life,” said Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the National Education Association on the day of the decision. With 3 million members, the NEA is the largest teachers’ union in the country. “We’ve seen it in the resources available to our students, and we have felt it in our paychecks.”
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Conservatives are ecstatic about the Janus decision. “The political wealth and muscle employed by the teachers unions in fighting education reform at every step is undeniable,” wrote former Florida Republican Governor Jeb Bush in a CNN op-ed on June 29. “The American Federation of Teachers fought giving parents more options in Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; the unions have spent years suing the state of Florida over accountability and choice reforms that have helped narrow the achievement gap in the state; and unions are spending millions to fund California candidates for governor and superintendent of public instruction to stop the growth of charter schools in the state, which currently serve more than 630,000 students.”
But the anti-union wave could not have come about without support from Democrats and even some education workers, who should have known better. As a post-Katrina charter leader in Louisiana, I witnessed Democrats defame unions, casting them as enemies of innovation and reform in order to justify state takeover and the removal of collective bargaining. I also saw Democrats claim political agnosticism, working alongside the likes of Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, who also tried to convert more traditional schools to charters.
The New Orleans newspaper The Times-Picayune observed the tightrope Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu walked, which tacitly endorsed anti-union Republican leadership: “She [Landrieu] has emerged as a full-throated champion of the charter school movement that has taken hold in New Orleans, a movement Jindal has also embraced, lauding the autonomy charter schools have to innovate and make decisions independent of unions and district bureaucracies.”
When New Orleans Public Schools didn’t renew its collective bargaining agreement with United Teachers of New Orleans, the black middle class bore the brunt, as black teachers comprised roughly three-quarters of the more than 7000 employees who were fired in the aftermath of Katrina. Education reformers who call themselves Democrats struck a blow to teacher unions then, and in doing so hurt black wages, and the Democratic Party too. This Faustian bargain, which gave the charter advocates more schools in exchange for their lapdog acquiescence, cost some Democratic educators their party bona fides and may well cost them boots on the ground in the upcoming 2018 and 2020 elections.
Ideology aside, the Janus decision imperils the very thing that makes our country so attractive to the rest of the world — the promise of a better life. It was unionized workers in the 1950s through the 1970s, the era of peak unionization, who built cars and poured steel and made up the middle class and gave their children a better life. Teachers and other public-sector workers today also want to give our children the same opportunity. With the Janus decision, the Supreme Court has dealt a blow to teachers’ unions and the black families who benefit from union jobs.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.
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