Janus v. AFSCME: Can teachers unions be saved? | WHAT IF?


In the spring of 2018, teachers unions
had a wave of victories with a string of red state strikes, but summer brought a major
defeat when the Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that agency fees are unconstitutional. Before Janus, some states compelled non-union
teachers to pay an agency fee to the union that represented them in contract negotiations. Agency fees have kept teachers union membership,
and revenue, high in these states. Unions have anticipated this verdict. In the words of one union president, they
are “preparing to become voluntary organizations.” In advance of Janus, the NEA projected significant
losses over two years, predominantly in agency fee states. Well… former agency fee states. Big losses after Janus could easily be a game-changer
for national teachers unions, which are among the most powerful interest groups in American
politics, and easily the most powerful on education issues. A tight bond with the Democratic Party has
worked for unions. It’s been pretty effective blocking unwanted
education reforms, and in blocking attacks on the linchpins of union power, like
agency fees. However, the blocking that has worked well in legislatures, couldn’t stop the Supreme Court. Now, unions will have to go on offense. But now playing offense will be even harder, because to prove their value to teachers after Janus, unions will have to do more with less. One path forward is to close ranks, as in New York, where unions pushed a
state law that would bar non-members from receiving full union benefits. Fair enough, but closing ranks may not be
the best bet. At loggerheads with the state and national
NEA over political endorsements, Nevada’s largest local took a radical step in
2018 of disaffiliating from both, and the losses were staggering. Perhaps going on offense will avoid such losses
if unions can build a bigger tent for members; one that is focused on local teachers’ concerns first
and less on remote political concerns. But what about the red state strike strategy? That strategy caught fire in
non-agency fee states. Could that be the unions’ answer after Janus? Maybe, but it will be a tough strategy to
bring to the states long used to agency fees. The red state strikes stood out, in part,
because they were the first statewide strikes since 1990. But they stood out for other key reasons. First, they all had legitimate statewide complaints
to rally around, like statewide salary schedules, and markedly low teacher pay. But only 15 states set teacher pay at the
state level, and three of them just went on strike. So for most teachers, the key rallying point is a district issue, not a state issue. Those strikes also confronted low state education
spending, but that isn’t markedly low across the country, either. Another distinction: These strikes were spurred less by unions, which were relatively weak in these states, and more by
local teachers who started Facebook groups that quickly grew to tens of thousands of
members. The solidarity that galvanized these grassroots
movements of “teachers next door” will be harder to come by for unions easily pegged
as special interests. And here is where unions in agency fee states
may prove the victims of their own successes. Agency-fee states tend to have higher salaries
and education funding, leaving them without salient issues for teachers to rally around. Unions will have a hard time using the red
state strike playbook in the very states where they expect the heaviest losses. So it sounds like unions are dead, huh? Well, not quite. They’ll be smaller. The question is if they’ll be a lot different. While hard times may be coming at the state
and national levels, Janus doesn’t alter the basic reasons teachers join
unions: to organize around their common interests and have a seat at the local bargaining table. So the most pertinent question may be what
will change at the local level, particularly in agency fee states. Most locals will get smaller, but smaller
unions can take a few different forms. Here’s four possibilities. First: Many will lose their least committed members,
leaving their more ardent supporters to push for more strident positions. For instance, groups like the Bad-Ass Teacher
Association push locals to be more confrontational. Where such groups become dominant, expect
less stable, and more contentious, education politics. Second: Many shrinking locals won’t become more
strident—but may go dormant—until new adverse state or district policies awaken a
resurgence. That’s a likely pattern in agency
fee states accustomed to bargaining advantages, that policymakers may
now aim to pare down. However, this pattern could push unions once
powered by agency fees to refocus squarely on local issues. Third: Other locals could go for a bigger tent. Taking a page from the red state strike playbook, some locals could shed the strong association with union headquarters and Democratic party priorities. They could remove party lines to attract a broader coalition of active members. That route wouldn’t make local politics
less contentious, but it would center them on local teachers’ shared priorities, potentially
leading to more representative, and more durable, local unions. Finally, some locals might just fade away. The red state strikes suggest that today there are alternative means of organizing which could compete for the right to exclusively speak for teachers. Janus could crack the virtual monopoly unions have representing one of the nation’s largest workforces. School districts will have to bargain, and teachers will be represented on the other side of the table. How unions evolve, and whether new entrants come on the scene, only time will tell. But Janus will amount to a historic change in how teachers organize. What do you think will happen to teachers unions after the Janus verdict? Let us know in the comments below. And check out the links to my work on Janus in the description. Also, let us know what other topics you ‘d like AEI scholars to cover on “What If?” and be sure to subscribe for more videos and research from AEI.

9 Responses

  1. Roma Robbins says:

    Good, here in Ca they had way too much power.

  2. fuzzy the great says:

    Janus was a major win. unions need to die so they can be reborn into something that actually work.

  3. Hypnos Stratagem says:

    They have way too much power here in NY. I am glad that my money won't go toward the democrats.

  4. RondelayAOK says:

    I'm in Illinois. Grateful that Janus won—and I am by no means an anti-union person.

  5. r64g says:

    what a wonderful ruling. Public sector unions should be illegal. Public employees don't work for private capital and their employer – the taxpayers – do not have any goals to maximize return on capital. That's a fundamental difference between public and private sector unions.

  6. King Naga says:

    If they are willing to actually live up to their "moral highground" and actually become legitimately voluntary organizations, I say no harm no foul.

  7. Joseph Mantler says:

    What If… What if Unions had to attract members by offering goods and services in exchange for dues? What if they had to do this without being able to access government power??

    You know… the same way restaurants and grocery stores and lawn care companies have to attract people?

  8. glenn brunck says:

    silly video…no real data…no numbers….

  9. sleepytickle says:

    UNIONS don't give a SHIT about the workers; rather, their own power. This is why the red state teachers were more successful. They focused on their OWN concerns, NOT electing Hillary Clinton.

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