Teaching Profession

The Next Court Case Against Teachers’ Unions Attacks Opt-Out Rules

By Madeline Will — February 27, 2018 3 min read
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The day after the U.S. Supreme Court justices heard arguments for and against compulsory union fees for nonmembers, three teachers gathered downtown to discuss the next big case that could potentially hammer teachers’ unions: Yohn v. California Teachers Association.

While Janus v. the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the case before the Supreme Court, charges that public-employee unions in 22 states shouldn’t be allowed to charge “agency” or “fair-share” fees to workers who choose not to join but who are still represented in collective bargaining, Yohn goes one step further. That case, which is currently on hold pending a decision in Janus, says teachers should have to affirmatively opt into the union—not opt out.

Many teachers disagree with their unions’ political speech or activities, said Terence Pell, the president of the Center for Individual Rights, the libertarian law firm that filed the Yohn case. But those teachers often end up subsidizing their unions’ activities because it’s too complicated to opt out of the union, he said.

In California, for example, teachers have to repeatedly opt out every year—and the opt-out period is typically a brief window, Pell said.

Eight teachers in California are part of the Yohn case (seven of those teachers also filed an amicus brief in Janus). The three teachers who spoke to reporters at the Center for Individual Rights office in downtown Washington on Tuesday were Ryan Yohn, Bruce Aster, and Brian Miller. They all expressed frustration at feeling voiceless and powerless under the union’s current structure.

“My money is going to a lot of policies I disagree with,” said Yohn, the titular plaintiff in the case and an 8th grade American history teacher in Westminster, Calif.

Although agency-fee payers, like the teachers in this case, are not funding their union’s overtly political activities, the three teachers said they still disagree with policies that fall under collective bargaining agreements—for example, teacher tenure and merit pay.

Union supporters argue that agency-fee payers are benefitting from the union’s collective bargaining on issues like salary negotiations, class sizes, and other job protections. They say that if the Supreme Court rules against agency fees, some teachers will stop paying anything and become free riders—a characterization that the teachers in the Yohn case balked at.

“We’re not free riders, we’re forced riders,” Miller said.

Yohn said he and other teachers at his school would be happy to donate $15 or so to collective bargaining efforts that focus on job protections, to avoid the free rider label.

A ‘Death Knell for Unions’?

Teachers’ unions are already bracing for a loss of membership and revenue if the Supreme Court rules against them in the Janus case. An unfavorable ruling in the Yohn case, should the case make it to the Supreme Court, would accelerate and deepen those losses by placing the burden on unions to retain and attract members.

“I’m not interested in ringing the death knell for unions by any stretch,” Miller said. “If the unions are decertified, if their members choose to leave ... I would assert that the unions are not providing a service to their members in the first place.”

All three teachers said they would be happy to stay a member of their local union, and they hope that the local unions would separate from the national and state chapters.

“We all know the folks who negotiate [at the local level], we generally want to hang together,” Aster said. “It’s the big CTA/[National Education Association] connection that’s the big bugaboo.”

The Supreme Court will decide on the Janus case by the end of June, and then lawyers hope to move the Yohn case forward, potentially even getting it to the Supreme Court for the next term, which begins in October.

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