On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a heavy blow to teachers’ unions with their ruling in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31.
In a 5-4 ruling, the justices decided that “agency” or “fair share” fees that public-sector unions had been charging to nonmembers were unconstitutional. The unions had argued that those fees were a fair way to charge nonmembers for the cost of being represented in collective bargaining, but the Supreme Court held that it was a violation of employees’ First Amendment rights to require them to pay fees when they might not support the union’s activities. The Supreme Court also ruled that employees need to affirmatively opt into the union—rather than having to opt out.
The decision set off a firestorm of reaction, including among educators. Some teachers are excited about the prospect of no longer having to pay dues to their union, while others have reiterated their commitment to their union. Here’s a sampling of some responses from teachers:
Ryan Yohn, an 8th grade U.S. history teacher in Westminster, Calif., said the ruling felt like a “14-year-old dark cloud that’s been over my head has lifted.” Yohn, along with other teachers, filed an amicus brief in the Janus case arguing that he shouldn’t be forced to pay union dues to an entity he doesn’t support. He’s also the plaintiff in Yohn v. California Teachers Association—a lawsuit that challenged a California rule that made teachers have to opt out of joining the union every year during a time-limited window. (That lawsuit will likely not proceed, given the broad ruling in Janus that addresses the same issue.)
“Every worker in America should at least be comforted,” Yohn said. “They have an option now, they have an out, and that means the unions will have to be more accountable [to them].”
Yohn said he believes teachers will stay in their union if they feel like the union listens to them and values their beliefs. He also dismissed the argument that the Janus decision would lead to an increase in so-called “free riders"—people who pay nothing to the union but still benefit from collective bargaining.
"[The union has] been free riding off me,” he said. “I received nothing but still had to pay for it. They’ve been the ultimate free riders for my work and effort.”
John Troutman McCrann, a high school math teacher in New York City, is the leader of the union chapter for his school. He said he has been having conversations about the Janus case with union members at his school for the past year, and every member signed a recommitment card to pledge their support for the union.
Still, McCrann said he’s particularly worried about the Supreme Court’s ruling that workers must affirmatively consent to paying dues. Teachers are busy, he said, and he worries that taking the time to opt into the union will fall through the cracks.
“There’s going to be plenty of people who don’t do it, not because of any political stance, but just because they’ve got a lot going on,” he said.
As a union leader, McCrann said he’s excited to continue having conversations with members about the work the union does—but he also predicts that this will be an uphill battle for many representatives across the country.
“I think it’s great work, and work we could have been and should have been doing without this motivator,” he said. But the school day “is a zero-sum game. ... It seems really unfortunate that we’re going to be put in this position to have to find time to do this work.”
Rebecca Friedrichs, an elementary teacher in California, wrote in an opinion essay for the Orange County Register after the decision was announced that this was a “monumental win” for teachers. Friedrichs was the plaintiff in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which presented a similar issue to Janus. That case reached the Supreme Court in 2016, but the court deadlocked 4-4 after Justice Antonin Scalia’s death.
“Freeing teachers could lead to the restoration of our schools and finally level the playing field between the values of bully unions and the values of the rest of the country,” she wrote.
Friedrichs wrote that she hears from many teachers who wish they could belong to their local affiliates without also paying dues to the state and national unions, which advocate for controversial policies. In her essay, Friedrichs urges teachers to decertify their union and “start fresh with their own local associations.”
"[S]tate and national unions control teachers in a culture of fear—using intimidation, isolation, and ignorance to keep us captive,” she wrote.
Christina Kim, an instructional coach in Los Angeles, said she hopes the Janus ruling will give unions an opportunity to “adjust and make ourselves stronger.”
Kim, who is a member of the United Teachers Los Angeles’ House of Representatives, said she wants her union to conduct an in-house survey of members to see what they think and how they can better represent them. She is a member of the teacher advisory group for Educators for Excellence, an advocacy group that recently released a nationally representative survey on teachers’ views on unions. The survey found that 85 percent of all teachers think unions are important, but 52 percent of union members think the union represents their perspective only somewhat.
Kim said unions should advertise all the work they do for teachers. Many teachers, she added, aren’t aware of everything the union does.
"[Early in my career], I thought unions were just there to protect us from bad leadership or grievances, but it’s more than that,” she said, adding that the UTLA has helped pushed for smaller class sizes, more school counselors, and restorative-justice practices in schools.
Kim said she hopes that when teachers do learn about how the union benefits their profession, they will be more likely to opt in. She also urged union leaders to focus on building relationships with members—and not just during contract negotiations or key elections.
“We might feel discouraged, but this is an opportunity for us to re-evaluate,” Kim said. “Collectively, we can make a difference.”
On social media, reaction to the Janus ruling was mixed. Some teachers praised the decision:
@SCOTUS did the right thing according to this teacher and many more who realize labor union leaders follow their personal political ideals. A union should not be involved in political party politics. Divisive.
-- TopCatMath (@TopCat4647) June 28, 2018
As a liberal and a teacher who has to pay union dues, I am extremely happy to see this ruling. I do NOT need a union to fight for me, I am a grown man who can speak for myself and I don’t need my money donated to government fundraising. Good riddance #Janus
-- Will Warren (@will_wre) June 27, 2018
Other educators pledged to stick with their unions.
-- Lisa A (@LisaDab4) June 28, 2018
I’m sticking with the unions. We can quibble about the elements of our specific unions we don’t like, but for those of us in unions, there is no other body that fully represents meaningful pushback to higher admin, policy makers, and other entities like the union. We out here.
-- José Luis Vilson, NBCT (@TheJLV) June 28, 2018
Teachers, what do you think about the Supreme Court decision? Will you continue to belong to your union, or will you stop paying dues? Let us know in the comment section.
Image by J. Scott Applewhite/AP-File
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.