The final day of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 term may have been overshadowed by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s retirement, but in one of two important cases decided that day, the court overturned four decades of precedent to bar public-sector unions from charging fees to nonmembers who enjoy the benefits of a union contract.
On its face, Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31 claimed to be about free speech. But the right-wing forces behind it admitted a detailed plan to “defund and defang” unions and dismantle their political power. That’s according to documents obtained by The Guardian from the State Policy Network—a national alliance that includes the primary Janus-backer, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, as an associate member.
As Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her dissent, the precedent established by the court’s 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education ruling was embedded in the nation’s law and its economic life. It ensured the labor peace that gave teachers, firefighters, nurses, police, and other public-sector employees a path to a better life. It made communities more resilient and kept public services strong.
In Janus, the plaintiffs weaponized the First Amendment from its original purpose of securing the political freedom necessary for democracy by arguing compulsory union fees violated free speech. By a 5-4 majority, the court put the interests of billionaires over established law and basic principle—just as Justice Kennedy did with his deciding vote in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010. The right wing’s thirst for power again trumped the aspirations of communities and the people who serve them.
Janus will, of course, hurt unions, but most importantly—and by design—it will hurt workers. Nevertheless, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated.
Unions are still the best vehicle working people have to get ahead. Workers covered by a union contract earn 13.2 percent more than comparable workers in nonunionized workplaces, and they are far more likely to have employer-sponsored health insurance, paid leave, and retirement benefits, according to a 2017 report from the Economic Policy Institute. Unions negotiate everything from manageable class sizes to safety equipment for emergency personnel.
Unions help make possible what would be impossible for individuals acting alone.
For the American Federation of Teachers’ 1.75 million members (our largest membership ever, and growing—we’ve added a quarter million in the last decade), Janus poses opportunities as well as threats. In the face of right-wing attacks on public education and labor, we have come to understand that when we walk the walk with the community, we become exponentially more powerful.
Unions are still the best vehicle working people have to get ahead."
Years before Janus, the AFT embarked on a plan to talk with every one of our members on issues that matter—supporting public education, creating good jobs that support a middle-class life, securing high-quality and affordable health care, pursuing affordable higher education, fighting discrimination and bigotry, and defending democracy and pluralism. Whether you lean conservative or liberal, higher wages, a voice at work, safe schools, and a functioning democracy are American values.
Since January, all over the country, more than half a million of our members signed new cards recommitting to the union, and that number is growing. Many of the AFT’s 3,500 local affiliates are reporting that 90 percent or more of their members have recommitted.
After the Janus decision hit, groups funded by the Koch brothers and the DeVos family launched their own campaigns, urging Los Angeles Unified School District teachers to “give themselves a raise” by dropping the union. Think about it—not only did U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos attend the Janus oral arguments at the Supreme Court (while not bothering to put it on her public schedule), her fortune is funding the post-Janus assault on unions.
When our members at AFT discover the special interests behind these “opt out” campaigns, they get extra mad. You only need to look at Arizona, Oklahoma, and West Virginia to show that when salaries and benefits are stripped away, the response can be intense—and righteous. In Los Angeles, 34,000 members of the local union affiliate were contacted by those Koch- and DeVos-linked groups trying to get them to opt out. So far, only one member has.
Janus is looming as a new beginning, rather than the end, of worker power and voice. On the day Janus came down, 2,400 faculty members at Oregon State University joined the AFT to bargain for better working conditions, and AFT nurses at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center won a contract that boosts salaries and will help prevent dangerous fatigue.
And whether it means winning parental leave in New York City, securing a new contract for the teachers of Detroit that restores funding for schools, or walking out for children and public education, we will not waver in our fight.
An internal AFT member poll conducted last month found that 74 percent had a positive opinion of the union, while only 4 percent had a negative opinion. And the public is with us, too. You saw it during the walkouts: Support for teachers is widespread and foundational. A recent NPR/Ipsos poll found nearly two-thirds of Americans approve of teachers’ unions. Last summer, Gallup found that support for unions more generally was at its highest level in 15 years.
The road ahead won’t be easy, but it never has been. We are in a race for the soul of our country. But if we really double down, if we fight not only for what’s right but for what the vast majority of Americans believe, working people—not Janus’ wealthy funders—will emerge as the real winners.
A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2018 edition of Education Week as ‘We Are in a Race for the Soul of Our Country’