Teaching Profession

Demonstrators, Including Educators, Turn Out as High Court Hears Union-Fees Case

By Madeline Will — February 26, 2018 5 min read
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As the U.S. Supreme Court justices heard arguments Monday in a case over public-employee unions collecting fees from nonmembers, hundreds of demonstrators on both sides of the issue gathered outside the building, waving signs and chanting competing messages.

The case was brought by Mark Janus, a child-support specialist in Illinois who charges that he shouldn’t be forced to pay fees to a union—the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)—which advocates for causes he doesn’t support.

See also: Justice Gorsuch Silent as Supreme Court Weighs Public-Employee Union Fees

At stake in the case are so-called “agency” or “fair-share” fees that public-employee unions in 22 states charge to workers who choose not to join but who are still represented in collective bargaining. Janus argued 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 case could have major implications for teachers’ unions. If the court rules against public employee unions, they would lose members and revenue, which could cause them to lose some sway in policymaking.

The crowd outside the Supreme Court seemed closely divided between union backers and Janus supporters. They were chanting competing phrases like, “Union power! Union strong!” and “Thank you, Mark!,” often at the same time. Demonstrators on the side of the union held signs with phrases like, “Stand with workers,” “Collective power protects students [and] teachers,” and “Bite me Janus! I need my union!” The other side’s demonstrators held signs saying, “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 said were 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.

“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 was split 4-4, leaving a lower court’s favorable ruling toward unions intact.

“It’s a sad day in America,” she added. “No matter what happens, we shouldn’t even have to be in this fight like this.”

Still, other educators, some of whom were in the demonstration outside the Supreme Court on Monday, don’t think it’s fair that they have to pay fees when the union doesn’t reflect their concerns or positions. (A nationally representative survey of 537 teachers by the Education Week Research Center found that 14 percent of teachers said the union represents their political views “not at all.” About 20 percent said “only a little.”)

The plaintiff of the previous unions-fee case, Rebecca Friedrichs, spoke at the demonstration. Friedrichs is an elementary teacher in California.

In an interview earlier this month, Bruce Aster, a high school history teacher in Carlsbad, Calif., who signed on to an amicus brief with a half-dozen other California educators arguing on behalf of Janus, said it frustrated him that the teachers’ union is involved in political causes.

“Golly, do [unions] represent me? No,” he said. “I would say majority of teachers share [the unions’ liberal] views, but there are an awful lot of teachers who don’t.”

Division Inside the Courtroom

Based on the questioning inside the Supreme Court, the case appeared to be narrowly split between the court’s liberals and conservatives. Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s pick for the Court, did not speak or ask questions during the 60 minutes of arguments. He is likely to be the deciding vote in this case. (For more on the arguments, see my colleague Mark Walsh’s story.)

In an interview after the arguments, AFT President Randi Weingarten said this case is politically motivated, with conservatives wanting to get rid of collective bargaining. Weingarten was in the courtroom for the arguments.

“It’s not about any individual’s right to opt out of the union, it is the [political] right wanting to eviscerate the union,” she said. “Collective bargaining in 23 states has led to better public services, safer communities—and they want that ended. That was what was clear. ... This is about getting rid of workers having any power to have a better life.”

See also: Are Teachers’ Unions on the Brink of Demise?

After the arguments, David Frederick, the attorney representing AFSCME, told reporters that an unfavorable ruling would “raise the specter that there will be labor unrest.”

He pointed to West Virginia, where teachers are on the third day of a statewide strike that has shut down schools across the state, as an example. In September, the state’s highest court cleared the way for a new right-to-work law to go into effect.

The justices’ decision in this case could come at any point before the Court’s term ends in late June.

Image: Supporters of Illinois government employee Mark Janus, who is challenging the right of public employee unions to collect fees from nonmembers, cheer as he walks to thank them outside the U.S. Supreme Court where a case on the issue was argued Monday. --Jacquelyn Martin/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.