The Battle on the Horizon: An Assault on Teachers’ Unions

Summary: In a replay of past legal challenges to private sector unions’ ability to organize workers, conservative donors and foundations line up to challenge public sector unions, which eventually may put teachers’ salaries and their collective political clout in harm’s way.

Ascending up and out of the educational silo for a moment to scan related stories, educators of many stripes may be alarmed to learn of a court case involving public sector unions and union dues pending before the US Supreme Court.

Mark Janus, a child-support specialist for the state of Illinois, with the financial and legal backing of conservative think tanks and donors, has gone to court in order to avoid being forced to pay as a non-union individual what is called a “fair share” payment, an amount less than regular membership in the union but which unions claim is compensation for costs of bargaining for higher wages, benefits, and working conditions.storm-730653_1280

Mr. Janus, in an echo of a long time struggle between unions and employers in the private sector, claims that the union’s bargaining for higher wages at a time of state fiscal crisis is contrary to his own political stance, and so violates his First Amendment right to free speech. Therefore, he should be relieved of the burden of even the partial payment to the union.

Such arguments have long been used in the private sector to eviscerate private sector union membership and have led to “right to work” laws in at least twenty-eight states which prohibit unions from requiring union membership or fair share payments. Now the guns are being trained on public sector unions.

The conflict is stark, inherently political, and constitutional. On one hand, coercion to pay fees seems unduly constricting of freedom of speech; on the other the power of union organizing historically has propelled many into the middle class and given them a seat as a group at the political and economic head table with enhanced access to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The rightward shift on the Supreme Court with Neil Gorsuch seated has many observers expecting Mr. Janus to prevail.

Why is such a dynamic of importance to the cause of better outcomes in our schools? The reasons are several and compelling.

The decline of private sector union jobs since the 1970’s in the United States from roughly one in three jobs to the current one in twenty has contributed significantly (along with globalization and technological change) to real wage stagnation and income inequality for both union and nonunion workers. The attack on public sector unions where successful can be expected to contribute to a further widening of income inequality, with teachers’ salaries the latest casualty.

Education is a redoubt of public union strength; teachers’ unions have proven to be a thorn in the side of right wing philanthropists who believe that free market principles will one day prove the salvation of education in the US. A successful attack on teachers unions in ways identical to the Janus case would wound teacher union capacity to resist the charter movement, for example, as well as over time shrink the education share of both state and local budgets by inhibiting wage growth, which in turn would alleviate pressure on corporate taxation, among other intended consequences.

Moreover, as would be predicted by market principles, the eventual hit to teachers’ wages would weaken the market for teachers entering the profession by making the pay scale even less attractive than it currently is.

Not coincidentally, the impairment of public union power would also damage the Democratic Party, at least traditionally the party of the working person. According to the New York Times one recent study found that “the Democratic share of the presidential vote dropped by an average of 3.5 percentage points after the passage of so-called right-to-work laws allowing employees to avoid paying union fees,”  and so has benefited the Republican Party, most typically that favored by corporate interests.

While market principles have a place in stimulating change in schools, adherents are a long way from proving any blanket rectitude. After twenty plus years of the charter movement, charters have demonstrated a gradually rising capacity to improve test scores, most notably for kids of color, and in most recent studies have marginally outperformed traditional public schools, albeit with significant asterisks, such as persistent charges of both active and passive “cherry picking.” Most successful charters are in fact non-profits, though benefit from wealthy benefactors of corporate background.

By contrast charters established as money makers are declining in number; the hard core capitalist in it for profit is retreating. Competition, creative destruction, and efficiency undiluted appear to be mismatched tools for the seven year old in an inner city classroom with a history of trauma.

While some wealthy philanthropists act from altruistic motives in their involvement with charters, those of their 1% cousins who are leading the charge in court against public sector unions are of a more radical philosophical persuasion. The belief of these latter folks in (and their benefit from) small government and their love affair with free market principles is self-serving as much as it is fervently wrapped in the flag. Such folk plow ahead against discordant information or contrary example with the conscience of true believers, and they have the cash that gets them a hearing.

While I respect the principles of people like Mark Janus, he also stands accused of myopia and of doing the business of the wealthy. Clearly the First Amendment, the right to freedom of speech, is a prominent pillar, and we have no grounds to question his sincerity. However, in a bigger picture he is party to a deconstruction of an historical bulwark of the working person, which effectively diminishes the speech of many, and limits their clout in the market place.

So our periscopic look out of the educational silo sounds an alarm. A conservative phalanx of donors, foundations, and lawyers may be coming to a teachers’ union near you.

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