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It was a blow to public sector unions as the Supreme Court decided that government workers who choose not to join unions may not have to help pay for collective bargaining.

It was not, however, a death blow.

Unions’ path may be rockier and they will need to learn to be creatively nimble. But they are not about to disappear.

Let me be clear. I am not a Polyanna about the Court’s decision.

I long have been troubled by what I see as the malign intent of the Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Anodyne explanations that this case was about free speech seemed to me to be so much magical thinking.

Brought by Illinois child support specialist Mark Janus, the case was, from its inception, part of the campaign by the National Right to Work Committee and others on the right to diminish the power of public sector unions and the clout of the Democratic Party.

While I decry the 5-to-4 Janus decision, I also believe, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of unions’ death are greatly exaggerated.

While I decry the 5-to-4 Janus decision, I also believe, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of unions’ death are greatly exaggerated.

I have spent a career studying teacher unions. They inform my understanding of unionism and, to a large extent, public education.

We have made a kind of national sport in recent years of bashing teacher unions and, not incidentally, the teachers who belong to them. It is fashionable in many circles to simplify the elusive search for solutions to complex public education issues with “if only.” If only teachers did or did not [fill in the blank], if only teacher unions would or would stop [fill in the blank].

As easy and convenient as “if onlys” might be, they invariably are wrong. Teacher unions can be stubborn and intransigent and cling to old and outmoded ways of doing things — but so can school district leaders.

Reducing complex public issues to the blame game serves no one very well.

To be sure, unions cannot be sanguine about their post-Janus prospects. They will need to take a fresh look at what members or prospective members want and need. Teacher unions will need to figure out how to strike a productive balance between bread and butter issues and the educational improvement agenda they want to pursue in the service of improving teaching and learning.

I am often struck when I hear teachers say they wish their salaries were higher, their health benefits better, and their class sizes smaller, that they often seem unaware that it was unions that provided the foundation that led them to expect stable salaries (albeit not high enough), comprehensive healthcare coverage, and other conditions that allow them to do their jobs in the classroom everyday.

And few if any remember a time when a teacher could be dismissed because her dress or demeanor or politics was not to her principal’s liking. Unions made sure these were no longer issues. Unions will not disappear precisely because these kinds of issues that unions put to rest are not likely to stay dormant without watchful eyes and strong organizations, and teachers will need them.

Unions will not disappear precisely because these kinds of issues that unions put to rest are not likely to stay dormant without watchful eyes and strong organizations, and teachers will need them.

Let me say a word about the potential unintended consequence of Janus for public education. First — more labor unrest. Strong unions and collective bargaining have resulted in school districts and unions establishing conditions of employment based on fairness and due process rather than whim and caprice.

Weakened unions can result in organizational instability that will not calm troubled education waters. Second, weaker unions less able to secure good and professional working conditions for the teachers they represent will leave districts less able to recruit and retain high quality teachers.

So let me conclude where I began. I am confident unions will determine anew reasons for teachers to join unions and remain members, though it may be more difficult now that the Supreme Court has authorized the ”something for nothing” approach to providing service. But unions are not on the cusp of disappearing. The political forces that hoped Janus was a knockout blow are likely to be disappointed.

This story about education law  was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Julia E. Koppich is President of J. Koppich & Associates, a San Francisco-based education consulting firm. 

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  1. I do not disagree with most of what you say. The free speech (and association) foundation for the Janus decision is quite poor as is the belief that teachers (or police officers or any other front line of social equality) can undo decades of malign neglect.

    Where I depart strongly is the notion that unions continue to be the only model of labor organization or protection (along with licensure) for a modern society. Excluding Massachusetts (a special case if ever there was one), the data do not support the benefits of unionization. At best, they are a relic. At worst, if I ever read yet another full page defense of keeping everything the way it is from Randi in a major newspaper, it will be too soon.

    I realize there are bad old days in education- just as there were in meat packing and on the docks- but the risk of that reversion is incredibly small. That is in comparison to the steady erosion of salaries and job security and other simple budgetary and tax changes that affect everyone. The education employment situation is if anything worse in higher education, but instead of envisioning a post-union world that improves the lot of gig workers, the unemployed/displaced, and the fully employed alike they bemoan the loss of tenure tracks. This position is not going to grow in popularity ever, and quite frankly the research is not on the side that it should. If we want to improve student outcomes, teacher salaries should take second position to free breakfast and better para support.

    What alternatives are being discussed in your policy circles?

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