The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to deliver a blow to unions as early as June 11—and a new analysis uncovers clues on what teachers’ unions should expect.
The justices will deliver an opinion in the Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31 case sometime in the coming weeks. At stake in the case are the so-called “agency” or “fair-share” fees that public-employee unions in 22 states charge to workers who choose not to join but are still represented in collective bargaining. The justices are widely expected to rule against the unions.
If the unions lose this court case, they could lose members, considering that many who pay agency fees decide to simply kick in the extra dollars to become full members. The unions would lose revenue dollars from that membership decline and from the loss in agency fees. The National Education Association has projected a loss of 307,000 members over two years, along with a $50 million budget cut. The effects would also hit state affiliates: The California Teachers Association, for example, has already voted to cut its budget for next year by more than $20 million because of a projected loss of 23,000 members, analyst Mike Antonucci wrote at the LA School Report.
In a new analysis published in the journal Education Next, researchers Bradley Marianno and Katharine Strunk dive into what an unfavorable Janus ruling could mean for teachers’ unions by looking at what happened in Michigan and Wisconsin. Both states recently passed right-to-work legislation that made it so unions could not collect agency fees from non-members—Michigan in 2012 and Wisconsin in 2011 and 2015.
The researchers examined the changes in membership rates, revenues, and campaign contributions of the two state affiliates of the NEA from 2009 to 2016. They also interviewed teachers and union officials on the ground in Michigan to hear more about how the union has changed.
First, they noted a steep membership decline in both states. In Wisconsin, NEA membership was cut in more than half after the 2011 reform—going from about 85,000 members to about 35,000 in 2016. Michigan’s membership was already on a decline before the right-to-work legislation passed, but the decline quickened after the reform—going from 115,000 members in 2013 to 95,000 in 2016.
“I think a lot of the reason we lost numbers was just the inconvenience that was created by no longer allowing the school district to pull the union dues out of members’ paychecks. Now they’re actually physically paying,” one union leader in Michigan told the researchers.
The loss of membership translated into a loss of dues revenues. In Wisconsin, dues revenue per teacher went from $394 in 2011 to $116 in 2016. In Michigan, it went from $761 in 2013 to $574 in 2016. However, this decline was unique to these states: The researchers noted that dues revenue in other right-to-work states remained flat during this time period, while states that still collect agency fees actually experienced steady increases.
These findings suggest that “teachers’ unions may be permanently cripped in the wake of Janus,” the researchers write. “They will lose membership, which will result in steep declines in revenues, which in turn may curtail their ability to affect the policy process.”
But the researchers also found evidence of teachers’ unions adapting to these new circumstances. Contributing to campaigns is one attempt at preserving political influence, the analysis notes, and while campaign contributions by Michigan teachers’ unions decreased post-reform, contributions on a per-candidate basis actually increased in Wisconsin. As a comparison, campaign contributions in right-to-work states have decreased slightly, while contributions in agency-fee states have increased steadily.
The researchers found that the Wisconsin union cut non-political spending, including union employees’ salary and benefits, and laid off union staff in order to afford the boost in campaign contributions.
The researchers also argue that another outcome of the Janus ruling will be a renewed focus on teacher voice.
“Unlike the status quo, when even non-members can be required to pay for union services, they will need to fight for every member, to convince them their services are worth paying for,” the authors write.
Union leaders in Michigan told the researchers that they are now constantly reminding teachers what the union does for them. “I hope to build a culture that moves a mindset that the union is watching out for everybody,” one union leader said. “If [young teachers] know what we’re really about, social justice, high-quality standards, and helping you be the best professional, then they want to be a part of that.”
The national union heads have said that the threat of Janus has caused teachers’ unions to refocus on engaging with individual members.
As the Education Next analysis notes, NEA President Lily Eskelsen García has said that the union is “seeing a greater level of activity now that we ever have before,” and has called for “one-on-one conversations with every educator.” And Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, told Education Week that there has been a “tremendous mobilization” across the country in the last year as local and state unions launched campaigns to get educators to recommit to their membership.
Charts via Education Next
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.