Law & Courts

Union Supporters, Detractors Face Off as Supreme Court Hears Case on Fees

By Madeline Will — March 06, 2018 3 min read
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A Supreme Court case on public-employee-union fees has pitted teachers from two points of view against each other: those who think they benefit from being a member of their union and those who resent having to pay fees to an entity they feel does not represent them.

Educators from both camps joined hundreds of demonstrators outside the U.S. Supreme Court last week, as the justices heard arguments in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31, which covers public-employee unions collecting fees from nonmembers.

Those “agency” or “fair share” fees are collected by public-employee unions in 22 states from workers who choose not to join but are still represented in collective bargaining. The plaintiff in the case before the high court, Mark Janus, argues that those fees violate his First Amendment rights. The unions, which include the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, say all workers gain from the bargaining they do for salaries and other benefits, so paying a fee for that is only fair.

The crowd outside the Supreme Court during arguments the morning of the Feb. 26 was divided between union backers and Janus supporters, with a slightly larger turnout on the union’s side. The opponents chanted competing phrases like, “Union power! Union strong!” and “Thank you, Mark!,” often at the same time.

Union allies held signs proclaiming, “Stand with workers,” “Collective power protects students [and] teachers,” and “Bite me Janus! I need my union!” The anti-union protestors held signs declaring, “Stand with Mark,” "#MyJobMyChoice,” and “Stand With Mark Janus. Stand with workers! Stand with teachers!”

Kember Kane, a kindergarten teacher in Silver Spring, Md., said it was exciting to see the demonstrations, which she deemed reminiscent of the Civil Rights era.

“What brought me out today was making sure that people understand that the union fights for the working conditions of teachers, and at the exact same time, they’re fighting for the classroom conditions our students learn in,” she said. “Our children deserve better than just scraps, and our union makes sure that happens.”

Bonnee Breese Bentum, a high school English/language arts teacher in Philadelphia, said the city’s teachers’ union helped create better conditions for students, including putting nurses and counselors in every school. That’s why collective bargaining is important, she said.

‘Utterly Ridiculous’

“It’s utterly ridiculous that we even have to be down here for this, and this is the second time this has been brought back to the Supreme Court,” she said, referring to an earlier case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, in which the court split 4-4, leaving a lower court’s favorable ruling toward unions intact.

The plaintiff in that case, Rebecca Friedrichs, was in the crowd and spoke at the demonstration.

“We don’t have a voice and we don’t have a choice,” Friedrichs, an elementary teacher in California, told the crowd, according to a tweet from the Center for Education Reform, a school choice advocacy organization.

Friedrichs was just one of several teachers on the Janus side of the demonstration, including three who are plaintiffs in the next court case against teachers’ unions, Yohn v. California Teachers Association. That case, which is on hold pending a decision in Janus, argues that teachers should have to affirmatively opt into the union, not opt out.

“My money is going to a lot of policies I disagree with,” Ryan Yohn, the titular plaintiff in the case and an 8th grade American history teacher in Westminster, Calif., said at an event with reporters the next day.

Yohn was also part of a group of teachers who filed an amicus brief in the Janus case. While agency-fee payers do not pay for any overtly political activities by the unions, Yohn argues that he still disagrees with many of the union’s stances on policies in bargaining agreements, such as teacher tenure and merit pay.

But public-employee unions worry that if the Supreme Court rules against them in the Janus case, they would lose members and revenue, which could cause them to lose some sway in policymaking. AFT President Randi Weingarten, who was in the courtroom for the arguments, said the case was brought by the political right “wanting to eviscerate the union.”

“Collective bargaining in 23 states has led to better public services, safer communities—and they want that ended,” she said. “This is about getting rid of workers having any power to have a better life.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2018 edition of Education Week as Outside Supreme Court, Union Supporters, Detractors Face Off

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