Teaching Profession

Here Are the Teachers’ Unions’ Arguments in the Supreme Court Case on Union Fees

By Madeline Will — January 29, 2018 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

As the two major national teachers’ unions brace for a U.S. Supreme Court case that could cause a major blow to their membership numbers and revenue, they laid out their arguments in support of public-sector workers being mandated to pay monthly union fees.

In the case, Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31, Illinois health-care worker Mark Janus argues that he shouldn’t have to pay monthly union fees to keep his job, especially because the fees may go toward advocacy that he disagrees with. He pays about $540 a year in compulsory fees to his union, which collectively bargains on his behalf. (Fees that people who aren’t union members must pay to the union are known as “agency” fees.) The ruling would apply to teachers’ unions.

If the justices rule in favor of Janus, unions, including teachers’ unions, will lose out on one of their major sources of revenue and will also likely see a drop in membership. With Justice Neil M. Gorsuch on the court, it’s likely that these compulsory fees will be deemed unconstitutional.

See also: A Primer on the Supreme Court Case That Teachers’ Unions Have Been Fearing

This month, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association both submitted amicus briefs to the court to offer their arguments on why the fees should remain legal. Here’s a summary of their main arguments:

  1. States currently have the authority to decide the most effective policies for managing their public workforce, and the unions argue that it should stay that way. The NEA points out that there are a range of bargaining policies across the country—34 states and the District of Columbia require school boards to recognize and bargain with groups of teachers who demonstrate support from a majority of employees, while six states prohibit bargaining altogether and 28 states prohibit the collection of agency fees for K-12 teachers.
  2. The lawsuit argues that a public-sector agency law is unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds, because collective bargaining ignores employees’ free-speech rights—they are subsidizing unions’ advocacy and speech, which they might not wish to support. The unions reject this argument, arguing that it “warps” the First Amendment because public employees do not have the same free-speech rights in the workplace as they do as private citizens: There are many things public employees are required to do as part of their job, regardless of their personal feelings. (For example, a manager might have to share with workers a bargaining position that she personally disagrees with.) Participants in collective bargaining engage in speech as employees, not citizens, the AFT brief said.
  3. A ruling for Janus could devastate unions, the briefs argue. The NEA says that if employees are able to share in the benefits of collective bargaining without paying, many people will opt out of joining. And the unions said the groups backing Janus will “weaponize” a favorable ruling by launching campaigns targeted at union members, urging them to drop their membership. “The avowed purpose of these campaigns is to deliver a ‘mortal blow’ to public-sector unions and ‘finish them off for good,’” the NEA brief said. And the AFT brief argues that it’s not enough for the unions to just “try harder” to recruit dues-paying members—"The presence of free-riders in a school sows discord and interferes with the close working relationships necessary to provide high-quality education,” the brief said.

More than 30 percent of teachers say the union doesn’t represent their political views, or only represents them a little, according to an Education Week Research Center survey. “I’m throwing my money to the far left when I want it to go to the common sense middle,” one teacher said.

Upon filing the briefs, the presidents of both unions weighed in with statements:

“The current law has preserved labor peace for four decades by balancing the interests of workers and employers and fostering partnerships to improve school districts and other public sector workplaces,” said Randi Weingarten, the AFT president. “We argue that engaging in collective bargaining is constitutionally no different than the state paying a consultant to advise it on employment relations issues.”

“Strong unions help to create strong schools for students and even stronger communities that benefit all of us,” said Lily Eskelsen García, the NEA president. “Point blank, this case is an assault on the freedoms of working people to earn a better life for themselves and their families.”

It’s worth noting that the NEA is already projecting a significant membership dip for this year—without even factoring in the outcome of the Janus case.

Related Tags:

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

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Trauma-Informed Practices & the Construction of the Deep Reading Brain
Join Ryan Lee-James, Ph.D. CCC-SLP, director of the Rollins Center for Language and Literacy, with Renée Boynton-Jarrett, MD, ScD., Vital Village Community Engagement Network; Neena McConnico, Ph.D, LMHC, Child Witness to Violence Project; and Sondra
Content provided by Rollins Center

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession Reported Essay Students Aren’t the Only Ones Grieving
Faced with so many losses stemming from the pandemic, what can be done to help teachers manage their own grief?
4 min read
Conceptual Illustration
Pep Montserrat for Education Week
Teaching Profession Reported Essay Teachers Are Not OK, Even Though We Need Them to Be
The pandemic has put teachers through the wringer. Administrators must think about staff well-being differently.
6 min read
Conceptual Illustration
Pep Montserrat for Education Week
Teaching Profession We Feel Your Grief: Remembering the 1,000 Plus Educators Who've Died of COVID-19
The heartbreaking tally of lives lost to the coronavirus continues to rise and take a steep toll on school communities.
3 min read
090321 1000 Educators Lost BS
Education Week
Teaching Profession Letter to the Editor Educators Have a Responsibility to Support the Common Good
A science teacher responds to another science teacher's hesitation to take the COVID-19 vaccine.
1 min read