The most interesting story coming out of the landmark Vergara and Harris decisions is the coming irresistible-force-immovable-object collision of reformers’ aggressive new litigation strategy and teachers unions’ growing stout-defense approach to their own leadership.
These cases provide the nation’s unions an opportunity to produce next-generation leaders who strengthen labor’s long-term position through new rhetoric and priorities. But the unions’ recent orientation—elevating increasingly confrontational individuals wedded to longstanding ways—may be a path to their political marginalization or worse.
Most observers interpreted the Vergara-Harris tandem as an anti-union one-two combination. The Vergara decision was a repudiation of California’s longstanding policies on tenure and seniority. Harris chipped away at unions’ ability to extract dues from nonmembers. The Court emphasized the right of individuals to refuse to financially support organizations with which they disagree, which could have major implications for mandatory-dues policies.
Nobody expected the unions to roll over; this is an admirably doughty gang. But their reaction has been positively martial. The first paragraph alone in the NEA’s statement included “privatizing public education and attacking educators,” “ultra-rich cronies,” and “deep-pocketed corporate special interests.” The California Federation of Teachers declared, “The judge fell victim to the anti-union, anti-teacher rhetoric.” The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) announced that it will “stand in solidarity in this fight for economic and social justice.”
The conventional wisdom is that this is simply proportionate-response behavior: Since these cases represent an existential threat, nothing less would be appropriate.
But I think something bigger is afoot. The unions aren’t just counterpunching; they’re escalating this fight. In recent months, some in their ranks have been disturbed by what they see as their leadership’s too-timid reaction to educator-hostile policies and contracts. These disaffected members were energized by Chicago’s strike (which humbled an imperious mayor), and some have self-organized into more militant groups.
One critical upshot has been the ascension of increasingly combative union leaders. A Politico article quoted NEA members as saying their outgoing president had been “too nice” and that his replacement must “play hardball.” That new leader, Lily Eskelsen García, according to Education Next, “portrays teachers as hardworking heroes who are under attack by wealthy, implacable, money-hungry foes” and has called value-added measures “the mark of the devil.”
Karen Lewis, head of the Chicago Teachers Union, helped orchestrate the Windy City’s teacher strike and accused “venture capitalists” of using “little black and brown children as stage props.” The new leader of the Massachusetts Teachers Association unseated the incumbent by charging him with failing to fight evaluation reform and Common Core. She denounces charters, wants a testing moratorium, and believes there is a “general assault on public education by people who are looking to privatize it, to profit off the public dollar, and to bust our unions.” The new leader of the United Teachers Los Angeles also recently defeated the incumbent, and he has threatened a strike, and promises to “fight against LAUSD’s cynical teacher jails and the broader climate of fear and school destabilization they promote.”
Even as reformers promise to copy Vergara with kindred lawsuits in other states, union leaders aren’t just promising to appeal in California and fight vigorously elsewhere; they seem committed to doing so with relish. Randi Weingarten declared, “This will not be the last word.” The CTA vowed to appeal because the decision to “strip teachers of their professional rights hurts our students and our schools.” Diane Ravitch wrote that Vergara will “be appealed until there is no higher court.”
In one sense, this reaction is understandable. These fights would serve as catharsis for beleaguered unions—opportunities to release resentment over testing, evaluation, NCLB, VAM, and more. They’re also a sort of proxy war against the superpower of maddening economic conditions—stagnant wages, stubborn unemployment, the credit and housing crises.
But the forcefulness of this response may prove counterproductive for union morale, membership, and credibility—and certainly will do so if they continue to lose battles. They might do more for themselves and their members by taking a more reform-oriented approach.
The Vergara ruling was important, but in the long run the trial itself may prove more so. The public narrative was that low-income kids had filed a bill of particulars against organized labor. The plaintiffs assembled a devastating case, convincing the court that state laws cherished by unions “impose a real and appreciable impact on students’ fundamental right to equality of education and impose a disproportionate burden on poor and minority students.” District superintendents explained the real-life injurious influence of these policies. The judge wrote that the evidence “shocks the conscience.”
As the unions appeal, these facts will continue to be splashed across front pages. Taking a last-stand approach to similar suits elsewhere will invite a deluge of heartrending anti-tenure and anti-seniority stories. Unions will be forced to respond to grim statistics (e.g. in Vergara, as many as 8,000 teachers having “a direct, real, appreciable, and negative impact” on students). Judges will likely continue to side with plaintiffs. Even where unions do win, these could be pyrrhic victories.
It is in this context that a federal appeals court (and in time possibly the U.S. Supreme Court) will hear Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which takes on compulsory teacher-union dues directly. Informed by sobering anecdotes about the consequences of today’s tenure and seniority policies, conservative and liberal judges alike may nod in agreement when the plaintiff’s attorney asserts, “My client shouldn’t be forced to fund an organization that advocates such laws.”
There is an alternative, though my recommending it probably makes it dead on arrival. But perhaps elements within the unions will recognize that some reformers would welcome the opportunity to galvanize public opinion against organized labor in a series of Vergara-like suits. Perhaps some union members with the long view are concerned about a potential flood of negative PR. Maybe they can stop this defiant, unnecessary march to Waterloo.
The alternative path has two parts: First, drop the Vergara appeal, and instead work with the California legislature to rewrite the challenged laws. Second, work to amend tenure and seniority rules in other states so Vergara-inspired lawsuits don’t get off the ground.
But is this kind of dramatic about-face even thinkable? Yes, if we see the unions’ recent direction as a temporary diversion from their longer-term reform-oriented evolution. We might think of this period as being bracketed by the “Emanuel Bookends.”
Rahm Emanuel’s mishandling of teacher issues in Chicago and the CTU’s subsequent strike set off this era. But one of his most famous quotes reminds us that extraordinary circumstances (say, two major court decisions) enable extraordinary changes in direction, like ending an era through inspirational new leadership.
“You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
An earlier version of this piece appeared in the Flypaper blog.