Many on the right and left believe that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus decision will significantly reduce teachers unions’ political power and role in public education—and could even cause their demise. It won’t.
The case overturned the Court’s 1997 holding in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that public unions could collect regular dues called “agency fees” from non-members, reasoning that all workers who benefit from unions’ negotiated contracts can be forced to pay for those efforts. Before Janus, the collection of such fees was common practice in twenty-two states. Now they’ll be in none, with the Count pointing, in part, to how difficult it is to separate a union’s work negotiating contracts from its participation in political activities.
In the short term, this it will reduce unions’ finances and political support. (See, for example, mounting lawsuits in California and New York.) But over time the decision will lead to unions that better serve their members and more effectively organize to achieve their ends. Here’s why:
- The growing blue wave: The political landscape is shifting dramatically because of growing inequality, political polarization, and the rise of Trump. Many unions are capitalizing on the increasing number of workers who lack a living wage and are thus unable to buy a house or quality healthcare, and can’t afford to save for retirement or move to neighborhoods with good schools. Membership in these unions will keep growing as long as employers and the government continue to undermine middle- and lower-income Americans. We are seeing the beginning of this in charter schools, Silicon Valley, and other sectors that were unlikely to organize in the recent past. And, apparently, kids are embracing socialism in ways not seen in fifty years. All of this is good for unions—and teachers unions in particular.
- Teachers unions, superintendents, and school boards are more similar than dissimilar: The power of teachers unions in “right to work” states like Nevada and Colorado may not be as great as those in union-friendly states like California and Massachusetts, but there remain few substantial differences between the two groups regarding teacher work rules, compensation, or power within the Democratic party on election day. Nor does being a fairly red and libertarian state prevent the formation of powerful unions—as Las Vegas, one of the strongest organized-labor towns in America, demonstrates.
- Teachers unions will have to work harder: For a long time, many unions have lazily collected dues or relied on money transfers from national parent associations without engaging members. Janus will force them to proactively adapt to better serving members, who will in turn more actively support their unions.
- Teachers (and their unions) are gaining more support from voters: As we have seen in protests in West Virginia and Oklahoma—places that aren’t exactly epicenters of liberal political movements—teachers and their unions are getting more support. Both states responded with pay increases, and the success of those efforts are inspiring other unions to use their power to call for better wages, even in conservative, low-tax districts and states. All of this may be more related to America’s growing inequality, but more policymakers seem to be recognizing that teachers shouldn’t have to hold down two jobs to pay their rent.
- Teachers union politics are going local: Some teachers unions are breaking free from their national parent to focus more of their resources locally, with the union in Clark County (Las Vegas) being the largest district-level example. This will mean fewer resources for the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, but it may allow local affiliates to focus on what matters most to their members, thereby increasing their success. I suspect that union dues are more effective at influencing local and state elections than national ones, education policy being mostly set by districts and states, not Congress.
In contrast to many of my education reform friends, I have never thought that teachers unions were the primary barrier to creating more high performing public schools for more disadvantaged students. I do disagree with their opposition to school choice, most forms of accountability, and other critical reforms, but I believe that unions have actually done much more good than harm for public education, such as increasing funding and teacher pay, and that students and the teaching profession would be worse off if we did not have them. Yes, unions do impede some important policies, but so do school boards, superintendents, and umpteen other forces in American education.
The Janus decision changes the rules for some teachers unions, but it won’t diminish their influence in state and local elections, or their role in setting state policy or district agendas. I could be wrong, though. We’ll see how the 2020 elections play out.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.