It’s been a busy spring for the teachers’ unions. In the midst of widespread teacher walkouts and strikes in six states, the unions are preparing for what is expected to be a major blow issued by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31—which the Supreme Court justices are likely to decide next month—could essentially turn the public sector into a right-to-work zone. That would mean public-employee unions could no longer charge “agency” or “fair-share” fees to workers who choose not to join but are still represented in collective bargaining. Currently, public employees pay such fees in 22 states. Onlookers say the high court, which skews to the right, will likely side with the plaintiff, leaving unions preparing for a loss of revenue dollars and membership.
Education Week sat down with American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten recently for a conversation about the recent wave of teacher activism and how the unions are preparing for the Janus decision.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why do you think these teacher walkouts are happening now?
I think that people saw that things were not going to get better if they didn’t put it into their own hands. The Women’s Marches and what happened in West Virginia [with the successful teacher strike] gave people hope that if they worked in concert with each other, communities would support them to get to more investment, and more investment would lead to better teaching and learning conditions and an ability to be on a path to a living wage.
I also think it’s rooted in what happened in November 16. That what Trump did actually woke a lot of people up. ... The advocacy to shake everything up didn’t simply shake up his proponents but shook up his opponents and stirred them into action.
The need has been there for a long time. What’s different is the alchemy, the chemistry that helped inspire the first of these and then the domino effect. It’s been inspiring, it’s been great, it’s been wonderful, but it’s only—we’ve had moments before: The Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street. How do you then make sure that this is not just a moment, but a movement for change?
Do you see this happening in other states?
In school speak, it’s close to the end of the year now, and you really have to plan these things. So do I think these will happen elsewhere? Yes. Will they happen in the first week of June? Probably not.
But I think what you’re going to see is a lot of focus on the summer now in terms of elections. We have over 200 members running for office. “Remember in November” is not a saying, it’s a movement.
The Supreme Court will decide Janus soon. Obviously, this is all coming at an interesting time for the unions...
It’s so Dickensian. It’s like the best of times and the worst of times. Janus is both a huge challenge and a huge opportunity. I mean, I certainly wouldn’t have wanted the case.
And the fact is, this case was settled law. Rarely is there a situation where a next-generation Supreme Court overrules or changes precedent of a unanimously decided opinion. This is a completely ideological movement to end unions as we know it and to redefine the First Amendment as a weapon against people. And that’s what some of those justices are trying to do.
It’s not an existential threat, because people have planned for it. I’ve seen a transformation in my union that you see through the mobilization in these mostly red states [with the walkouts], but you’re seeing it quietly in the states where people have the right to collectively bargain and where states have made the decision—if unions are there to collectively bargain, they represent everyone, in exchange for everyone paying a fair share. You see tremendous mobilization throughout those states of people just talking to each other and understanding what’s at stake.
There have been recommit campaigns throughout the country, knowing full well that what the right wing will do as soon as they get the decision they want is ... try to get people to opt out of their unions. We’ll see what happens. It will be a bumpy ride, but I am completely inspired by the work that has gone on in preparing for this.
State laws cannot change a constitutional decision by the Supreme Court. In California, in New York, in New Jersey, they’re just trying to level the playing field so that people have an opportunity to talk to their unions. That’s all—the unions don’t have thousands and thousands of dollars to advertise and do that kind of stuff that the right wing is going to do.
What you learn in organizing 101 is first friend, best friend. And they want to make sure they have that opportunity. This is really good practice regardless and should have been done years ago. ... We knew that it was really important to talk to people quickly as opposed to, you know, sometime in the first year.
Could you see state affiliates pushing for those laws, post-Janus?
It very much depends on the politics of the state. We have said pre-Janus that it’s best practice to do this. Some people have been successful about it, and some have not.
Ed Allen, president of the Oklahoma City chapter of the AFT, has said the walkouts have led to an increase in membership in his union, and that maybe the walkouts could lessen the impact of Janus. Is that what you’re seeing as well?
I think what’s happened is what these walkouts have done is said to the Supreme Court ... you’re not going to take us out of politics by simply trying to deny our rights. What these right-wing ideological justices want to do is suffocate the unions so that workers will not be involved politically or have the economic power at the bargaining table. And what these walkouts are showing is that when the issue is important enough, people ... will collectively engage, regardless of what their rights are.
This was a precipitous time to say it as any. [The walkouts] basically said to the Supreme Court—don’t try [to limit workers’ rights]. But let’s be very clear: the people who brought the case brought the case to try to stop people from being involved politically, and stop people from being involved at the bargaining table.
The AFT has 94,000 agency-fee payers. Do you have an estimate of what the real impact of an unfavorable Janus decision will be on the AFT?
I don’t normally talk about [the numbers], because anything I talk about publicly in terms of estimates will be used as fodder by the right wing. But yes, we’re planning. We have various different scenarios that we’re planning for. It is at someone’s peril to try to write our obituary.
[Editor’s note: The other major teachers’ union, the National Education Association, is forecasting a loss of 307,000 members over two years, if the Supreme Court eliminates agency fees, according to union analyst Mike Antonucci. He broke the story at the 74 Million.]
Image: American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten speaks at a news conference in Washington late last year. —Andrew Harnik/AP-File
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.