A year ago, the Supreme Court dealt labor a major blow by striking down Abood vs. Detroit Board of Education, which allowed unions to collect agency fees from workers they represent who do not want to be members of the union.
Plaintiff Mark Janus opposes unions’ liberal politics and argued that Abood violated his freedom of speech. The Court agreed, finding “extraction of agency fees from nonconsenting public-sector employees violates the First Amendment.”
Yet agency (aka “fair share”) fees are not funding political campaign contributions, Political Action Committees, or political work of any kind. Fee payers are only being charged for the considerable services labor unions provide them. These include negotiating salaries, healthcare, and pensions, protecting working conditions, and deploying union representatives and staff attorneys to defend employees who face discipline or dismissal.
Moreover, labor unions are not dictatorships. Their leaders are elected, and the decisions made more or less reflect the desires of the membership. Those who oppose unions’ pro-Democratic Party politics, such as Janus, or the teachers in the 2016 Friedrichs case, are free to and should make that political fight within their unions.
By contrast, Janus and Rebecca Friedrichs are essentially saying that they should get to stick their co-workers with the cost of the union benefits they enjoy because they don’t agree with their fellow workers’ politics. That’s not “freedom”– that’s freeloading.
Justice Elena Kagan accuses the conservative majority of “weaponizing the First Amendment,” and she has a point. By employing a very problematic interpretation of the First Amendment, they’ve undercut labor unions and with it the living standards and rights of millions of working people. Similarly, in Citizens United and others, well-funded organizations have used the First Amendment to neuter or eliminate our already meager campaign finance laws.
Teachers unions are the largest unions left, and Janus is aimed primarily at us. The backers funding Janus and Friedrichs wanted to strike a blow against the Democratic Party. However, wittingly or not, they have also struck a blow at our schools and our students.
There are many issues for teachers which are crucial in determining how well students will be educated. While the general public and union critics are largely unaware of these issues, teachers unions fight to defend our ability to provide students with a good education.
Teachers’ unions help children’s education because they protect a precious resource – teachers’ time. At nonunion schools, teachers are often weighed down with unnecessary labor, such as lunch and nutrition duty, before and after school yard duty, and supervising and chaperoning after-school events. These duties reduce teachers’ ability to spend time helping students and preparing for classes.
At nonunion schools, teachers often must forgo their planning period to substitute for absent teachers. At union schools, substitute teachers handle most of this responsibility.
At union schools, “preps” – the number of separate class subjects teachers must prepare for – are contractually limited. At nonunion schools, excessive preps can drain teachers’ time – it is far more work to teach three or four separate subjects in five periods than it is to teach one or two.
During our successful Los Angeles teachers strike in January, our union fought for our students. Our demands included: properly staffing counselors, nurses, and librarians; smaller class sizes; and eliminating yard duty for our already overworked counselors.
The day of the Janus ruling I received an email from one of the many anti-union groups seeking to undermine American labor. The mailing sought to seduce union members with the promise of saving a little money on our agency fees. I responded, “Not interested – I’m union and proud.” Since then I’ve received many similar mailings and read many pro-Janus/anti-union viewpoints, but I’ve seen no reason to change that opinion.