Law & Courts

Teachers’ Unions Expected Big Membership Losses. Here’s Why Those Haven’t Panned Out

By Madeline Will — June 27, 2019 8 min read
United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl, left, joined teachers at a rally in downtown Los Angeles before they went on strike in January. Some experts say that strikes have kept teachers from leaving their unions.
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Despite a stinging defeat from the U.S. Supreme Court last summer, teachers’ unions have not seen the mass exodus of teachers that both they and others predicted.

Explanations differ on why: Some polling results show that teachers haven’t gotten the message that they can leave their unions and still receive the benefits of collective bargaining. But some experts say that the unions have re-energized members through walkouts and strikes.

Now, observers are wondering: Will the membership gains continue after the activism settles down and teachers become more informed about their rights?

“I am surprised that we did not see a dip, but I am not surprised that this was not a massive disaster for unions,” said Bradley Marianno, an assistant professor of educational policy and leadership at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “I expected them, at least in the short term, to be able to push back and maintain membership levels. ... I think it’s important to watch what happens further.”

The Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31 last June that teachers do not have to pay “agency” or “fair share” fees if they’re not union members. In other words, teachers who do not agree with their union can now cut ties completely, while still being represented in collective-bargaining agreements.

The decision affected teachers in about half of states—the rest of the country already had laws prohibiting unions from charging agency fees. Union officials and outside experts expected many members to drop out, since the agency fees were usually not much cheaper than a full membership, and teachers often kicked in the extra few dollars to become a full member.

In addition to losing agency-fee payers—the American Federation of Teachers had about 84,000 fee payers and the National Education Association had about 88,000—the national teachers’ unions did see initial membership declines. But now, the numbers are starting to rebound.

An AFT spokesman said the union has added almost 100,000 members since the Janus ruling, and is about to hit 1.7 million members. Last May, right before the Supreme Court decision, the union had recorded 1.75 million members. (That number includes health-care workers and those in higher education, in addition to K-12 teachers.)

The NEA, meanwhile, projected a more than 10 percent membership decline from 2018 to 2020. But a modified budget released last week showed that the projected losses did not entirely materialize.

The nation’s largest teachers’ union has budgeted for 2.29 million full-time equivalent members in 2019-20, instead of the anticipated 2.11 million. But before Janus, NEA had recorded 2.45 million full-time equivalents in 2017-18, although that figure included agency fee-payers. (In total, the NEA has about 3 million members, but many of those are part-time teachers. For the purposes of the budget, NEA just counts full-time equivalents, which include teachers, education support professionals, and retirees.)

Experts have attributed the membership numbers to several reasons: The unions have spent months, even before the Supreme Court decision, asking members to “recommit” to their unions. A wave of teacher strikes and walkouts, partially organized by the unions, have incentivized teachers to join. And despite informational campaigns funded by anti-union sources, many teachers say they aren’t aware of their rights to leave the union or what will happen if they do.

Another issue: Ending a union membership can be tricky. Some unions have time-limited windows as short as a few days in which teachers can opt out of membership payroll deductions. The unions say that the windows give them predictability in their finances, but critics say they put an undue burden on teachers trying to drop their membership. Several lawsuits against the unions have been filed on this issue and are still pending in court.

A Lack of Awareness?

In a recent survey of about 1,000 teachers across the United States, 77 percent said they hadn’t heard of the Janus case before taking the poll, and 82 percent said nobody had contacted them about their membership options since the decision. Fewer than a quarter of teachers said they have reevaluated their union membership in the past year. (However, in 28 states, teachers already had the right to leave the union without paying fees before the Supreme Court ruling.)

The survey was commissioned by the Teacher Freedom Project, a group devoted to educating teachers about their choices when it comes to unions. It was conducted between May 29 and June 9 by YouGov, an online polling company.

“We think, and the survey appears to show, that the most likely explanation of why there hasn’t been a massive opt-out is that a lot of teachers just don’t know they have this right, and those who do are mistaken about what happens” if they opt out, said Colin Sharkey, the executive director of the Association of American Educators, in an interview. AAE is a national professional organization, which some teachers join as an alternative to a union, and is the largest supporter of the Teacher Freedom Project.

Indeed, the survey shows that many teachers are mistaken about what would happen if they left the union. For example, about a quarter of teachers incorrectly believed that a non-member would not receive any pay increases negotiated by the union and would lose their tenure protections.

“I’d consider it a win for Janus, even if there isn’t a massive opt-out, if teachers belong to the association they want to,” Sharkey said. “It actually doesn’t matter so much what you’ve chosen, just that you’ve done it actively, informed, and voluntarily.”

Still, Marianno said he was skeptical that most teachers are unaware of how to drop out of the union.

There has been a substantive amount of media coverage, he said, and both unions and anti-union groups have staged informational campaigns for teachers. Instead, Marianno said, “unions have done a good job communicating the value of union membership, and therefore teachers may not have seen the need to opt out just yet.”

Part of that messaging has been through activism. Before the Janus decision, masses of teachers walked out of their classrooms in a half-dozen states. And over this past year, teachers in several big-city school districts, including Denver and Los Angeles, went on strike.

In the recent labor actions, the union “has very smartly made a strong case to their members about why they’re needed,” said Katharine Strunk, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University. “It’s very easy to rally members to pay the fee when you’re going out for them and saying, ‘By the way, I’m fighting for a salary increase and smaller class sizes.’”

Several union leaders in states that have seen work stoppages have indeed reported an uptick in membership after the labor actions, which have largely been successful. But Strunk said it remains to be seen what the unions do with the “momentum that they’ve gained.”

“The public is not going to have limitless patience for strike after strike after strike,” she said. “They can’t keep striking forever.”

Considering the Options

For Stacey Joy, a 5th grade teacher in Los Angeles, going on strike in January was an important way to fight for better working and learning conditions. And she was pleased with some of the progress she felt was made.

But that’s not why she has been a union member for her three decades in the classroom, or why she has never considered leaving the union.

“It’s not just about raises, it’s not just about charter co-locations, or anything else that we were just on strike for,” she said. “I’m thinking about the teacher who was being mistreated by her administrators at another school site, and she said, ‘What do I do? I don’t know how to fight.’ And I said, ‘The first person you go to is your union rep.’”

But for other teachers, the advocacy of the state and national unions are dealbreakers. Rick Nestoff, a high school physics teacher in North Royalton, Ohio, had been an agency-fee payer for most of his 23 years as a teacher. After the Janus decision, he never considered joining the union in full.

“I think the local people are fantastic, but the state and the national [unions], they had all these positions on all these topics that had nothing to do with education,” he said, adding that he was frustrated with the partisan nature of the unions’ messaging. “They’re closely aligned with the Democratic party.”

Meanwhile, Michele Kerr, a high school teacher in Fremont, Calif., said she is a Republican, but she joined the union anyway, rather than just paying agency fees.

“It wasn’t worth it,” she said. “The unions haven’t been terribly intrusive, ... I was getting good raises, I might as well pay the full amount.”

But this past school year, she has disagreed with how the local union has handled contract negotiations. After heated debate, the Fremont Unified school district eventually agreed to a 4 percent raise for both this past school year and the next one.

Kerr was frustrated with the settlement, saying that the union should have asked for bigger raises to keep up with the rising cost of living. “I can get myself a $1,500 raise just by quitting your union,” she quipped.

She’s not sure whether she wants to remain a member of the union—but she’s leaning toward staying in, because she thinks some of the protections that the union offers and the ability to vote on contracts and other school matters are worth it.

After all, Marianno noted that unions still have collective-bargaining rights in most states.

“As long as they have collective bargaining, they can still negotiate and demonstrate value for their membership,” he said.

Education Week will be in Houston July 4-7, covering the National Education Association’s annual delegates’ meeting. Follow along with @madeline_will on Twitter, or through updates posted on the Teaching Now blog.


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