Could an upcoming decision by the U.S. Supreme Court justices lead to more labor unrest?
West Virginia—where a statewide teachers’ strike just finished after nine days—and Oklahoma—where discussions of an impending statewide strike are happening now—are two of 28 right-to-work states. That means teachers there are not required to pay dues to their union unless they choose to become members. In the other 22 states, public-employee unions are allowed to charge “agency” or “fair-share” fees to workers who choose not to join. The idea is that they are still represented in collective bargaining and should have to pay something for that.
Agency fees are the issue at stake in the U.S. Supreme Court case, Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31. If the justices deliver an unfavorable ruling toward the unions—something that onlookers largely expect to happen, given the high court’s conservative bent—these agency fees will be no more. And union supporters say that could hurt unions’ ability to engage in collective bargaining, which could lead to a lot more strikes and work stoppages like the one in West Virginia.
“A loss of collective bargaining would lead to more activism and political action, not less,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten told the Washington Post. “Collective bargaining exists as [a] way for workers and employers to peacefully solve labor relations.”
She pointed to West Virginia, which recently became a right-to-work state, saying that “that kind of activism will be multiplied and magnified across the country if collective bargaining is struck down.”
And David Frederick, the attorney representing the state employee association in the Janus case, told the Supreme Court justices during oral arguments that most unions that receive agency fees will add a no-strike clause in their collective-bargaining agreements.
“The fees are the tradeoff. Union security is the tradeoff for no strikes,” he said. “And so if you were to overrule Abood [the precedent allowing agency fees], you can raise an untold specter of labor unrest throughout the country.”
But Jake Rosenfeld, an associate professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis, called that line of argument “pretty far-fetched.”
“In right-to-work states and non-right-to-work states, strikes are incredibly rare,” said Rosenfeld, who studies public-sector labor unions. Large strikes, like the one in West Virginia, are even rarer, he added.
In 2017, there were seven strikes counted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, he said. In the 1950s, there were hundreds of strikes a year—in 1952 alone, there were 470 strikes.
According to an Education Week analysis of teachers’ strikes from 2010 to the present day, there have been at least 76 union-backed strikes in the past eight years. Just two happened in right-to-work states (Missouri and West Virginia).
Here are the numbers of teachers’ strikes between 2010-18, by state:
- Pennsylvania: 33
- Illinois: 18
- California: 7
- Washington: 6
- Oregon: 4
- Ohio: 3
- Vermont: 3
- Missouri: 1
- West Virginia: 1
(These do not include sick-outs, where enough teachers purposefully call in sick to close schools.)
Pennsylvania, Illinois, and California, the states where the most teachers’ strikes occurred, are non-right-to-work states.
In an essay for the Washington Post, Shaun Richman, a union organizing director, wrote that if no-strike clauses in union contracts disappear, “employers will have chaos and discord on their hands.” Workers would be able to engage in “wildcat strikes” (which are unauthorized by union officials), he wrote.
But at this point, the majority of states have right-to-work laws, and strikes are still rare, said Bradley Marianno, a doctoral candidate at the Rossier School of Education in the University of Southern California.
If the union supporters’ argument panned out, he said, “it certainly would be a change of pace.”
Corrected: A previous version of this post misstated the amount of strikes in Missouri and Pennsylvania. The total has been updated to reflect the correct data.
Education Week Librarian Maya Riser-Kositsky contributed research to this post.
Image: Wyoming County’s Mullens Elementary school teachers Kara Brown, from right, Katherine Dudley and Nina Tunstalle, along with Lois Casto of Central Elementary school in St. Albans, react to news that West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and Senate Republicans have reached a tentative deal to end a strike by giving them 5 percent raises in Charleston, W.Va., on March 6.
—Craig Hudson/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.