Last month’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME seeks to turn back the clock on almost a half century of progress for working people. I wish that the decision came as a surprise, but those of us in teachers’ unions have been anticipating this radical retrenchment by the Supreme Court on this key labor issue for years. This court’s 5-4 ruling is just the latest in a string of attacks by billionaires and corporate special interests against workers. We know what we are up against—and we are undeterred. We will move forward, in solidarity, because American families need unions more now than ever.
Those who are ready to write labor’s obituary in the wake of this decision were not with me this spring as I walked shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of thousands of educators in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina. As the #RedForEd movement caught fire, public school teachers, support staff, families, and students said “no more” to leaky ceilings and mice-infested classrooms, “no more” to decades-old textbooks and taped-together technology, “no more” to corporate tax cuts that privilege the rich over the poor. They rose up to fight for themselves, their students, and their communities.
In historic numbers, in seas of red shirts, hand in hand with students and parents, our National Education Association members and other educators flooded their state capitol buildings, urging legislators to pay attention to the unacceptable conditions students face. These courageous educators could no longer stand by as their students sat in overcrowded classrooms with broken desks. They could no longer stand by as school weeks were shortened to four days. They could no longer stand by as experienced colleagues left in droves the profession they loved because they could no longer afford to stay. Teachers, bus drivers, guidance counselors, cafeteria workers, and custodians stood up, walked out, and demanded action. This is what unions stand for. This is who we are as educators. And we will not be silenced by those who seek to stifle our voices.
Educators were not alone. The rivers of people that flowed through the state capitols wearing #RedForEd included small business owners, fast-food workers, religious leaders, nurses, parents, and students, all joining educators in solidarity.
These walkouts have not only brought attention to the inadequate learning conditions many students face, but they have also shown that labor, communities of color, and women are fighting an interconnected battle for a more equitable future. To rise, we must join together.
We must also understand that we are up against powerful forces.
The same well-funded special interests that brought us anti-worker, anti-education policies in state legislatures across the country are behind the Janus case. The National Right to Work Foundation, the group whose lawyer argued the case on behalf of Mark Janus, is part of a network of organizations funded by corporate billionaires like the Koch brothers to rig the rules against working people. For decades, these wealthy elites have used their fortunes to gain outsized influence by limiting the rights of people to unionize.
Despite these attacks, or maybe because of them, unions remain the strongest voice to challenge the corporate dominance over every aspect of the economy. Educators are trusted advocates for public schools and students, and recent polls show public regard for unions and particularly teachers’ unions is high. (According to a recent NPR/Ipsos survey, nearly two-thirds of adults view teachers’ unions favorably.) That sentiment is also felt in the strength of the NEA, whose membership is higher today than at any point in the last five years.
The hundreds of thousands of educators who took to the streets this spring in support of their students and public schools—and the millions of NEA members—are not going anywhere. We intend to continue our fight for the public schools, which are the foundation of our students’ lives and our country’s future. And we will continue to rise up and speak out in our community and at the polls in support of our bold and optimistic vision of a future America where everyone has a voice at work, a seat at the table, and every student attends a public school that helps them reach their fullest potential.