New York’s teachers unions say they’re staying strong after Janus case, but there could be a battle ahead

This summer, New York teachers received a startling message from their state union. In all capital letters, a Facebook post warned: “Fraud alert!”

New York State United Teachers wanted its members to look out for an email from a conservative nonprofit. The email announced that a recent Supreme Court decision now meant members had a right to stop paying into their unions.

NYSUT called the message part of “a campaign to weaken your union and weaken your voice in the workplace.”

“Delete it,” the union told its members.

In June, the Supreme Court ruled that public employees can’t be forced to pay fees to unions — a decision that labor experts say could drain membership and dues by double-digit percentages. But after sounding the alarm, teachers unions in New York are now projecting confidence that their ranks are holding steady.

There are reasons for New York labor leaders to be hopeful, with a friendly legislature on their side, the largest union membership in the country, and teachers who, surveys show, are unusually informed and committed to their unions.

But there is also the potential for trouble ahead, with well-funded conservative groups springing up to inform teachers of their new right to stop paying into union coffers. The timing of the Supreme Court decision left United Federation of Teachers members with only three days to decide whether to keep paying dues. So while things appear steady, the fight could just be gearing up.

“It is the most unionized state and city in the country,” said Stephanie Luce, a labor studies professor at CUNY’s The Graduate Center. “That makes it a bit of a battle ground.”

In the weeks since the Supreme Court decision, teachers union leaders in New York have insisted that members are sticking with them. The UFT estimates that fewer than 20 members have opted out, based on preliminary reports from the city education department. Precise numbers, however, are hard to come by. A union spokeswoman said that teachers would need to contact the city education department to stop paying dues, but a public records request that Chalkbeat sent to the city on July 17 hasn’t been answered.

Andy Pallotta, president of the state teachers union, estimates that only 40 members have dropped out, a figure that’s based on reports from local chapters and phone calls that have come directly to the state union. Still, Pallotta said the numbers they’re seeing so far are tiny, especially compared with the 9,000 members who have recently re-committed to NYSUT.  

“We spent a year and half preparing for this case, and it certainly wasn’t a sucker punch,” Pallotta said.

Before the Janus decision, public employees in New York and about 20 other states had to pay fees to unions regardless of whether they were members. Sometimes called a “fair share” fee, the payments are meant to cover the cost of bargaining contracts, which cover all employees — even those who aren’t union members.

In New York City, only about 2,000 educators opted out the United Federation of Teachers and paid the fee instead. There was little incentive not to be a member, though, since the fee was about the same as paying dues. Now, that’s no longer the case, and members who opt out could save more than $100 a month.

While teachers can drop their membership at anytime, they can only cancel dues deductions during a two-week window every June. The quick turnaround after the Janus decision, which was released on June 27, could have helped keep union numbers strong in the immediate aftermath. But other states provide a cautionary tale for what could be ahead. For example, the Michigan Education Association, among the state’s largest unions, saw a 20 percent drop in dues and fees after right-to-work laws were passed.

To keep up membership, the UFT will have to prove its worth to thousands of new hires every September — while also keeping a close eye on retaining the 100,000 educators who already carry union cards.

Every year, the country’s largest school system hires about 6,000 teachers to fill New York City classrooms. This summer, the union organized a book giveaway just for new members to stock their classroom libraries — and learn more about the UFT from members who were there to spread the word. When a crowd of new teachers filled Kings Theatre for an information session recently, the UFT was there again, handing fliers to potential new members.

“It’s not even about convincing, I think, or winning people over,” said Karen Alford, UFT’s vice president of elementary schools. “Some of these folks may not understand labor unions, so we will have people onsite to answer questions about their benefits or their pay. And all of that is an introduction to a mammoth system.”

The union is also keeping an eye on retaining its current dues-paying members.

Just days before the Supreme Court ruling, the union announced a huge win: paid parental leave for teachers who start a family. Beyond bargaining — the union’s contract is up this November — the UFT has also led a grassroots effort to get teachers talking to each other about the benefits of membership, including a door-knocking campaign that reached 11,000 homes.

April Rose, a chapter leader at her Queens elementary school, said the battle for members will be fought school-by-school and teacher-to-teacher. At P.S. 132, Rose said she and her union colleagues have made it a point to meet with every single teacher in the building.

“It’s really grassroots organizing on a different level,” Rose said. “That’s the face of the union: when you go to work on an everyday basis.”

So far, those efforts seem to be paying off. In the lead up to the Janus decision, the teacher advocacy group Educators 4 Excellence released a survey that showed New York City teachers were far more likely than their national peers to know about the case and see the value of their union. Here, 94 percent of teachers said their unions were “essential or important” to their jobs — almost 10 percentage points above the national average.  

Labor has also gotten a boost from state leaders, with recently approved legislation that allows union representatives to meet with new hires. On the same day Janus was decided, Gov. Andrew Cuomo appeared with labor leaders and hastily approved an executive order to shield public workers’ personal data from information requests — so that it’s harder for anti-union groups to track down members and lobby them to stop paying dues.

Time will tell whether all of those efforts are enough to keep the ranks of New York’s teachers unions strong. But there are also reasons for labor leaders to worry.

They are facing headwinds from outside groups, some of which had a hand bringing the Janus case to court. Just hours after the Supreme Court decision, upstate teachers opened their inboxes to find a message with the subject line, “New York Union Members Now Have a Choice in Paying Dues.”

The email shows a smiling woman standing in a classroom with her arms folded. “Whether it’s disagreements about politics, concerns about a lack of local representation, problems with union spending, or something else — you now have a right to stop paying for activities you don’t support,” it reads.  

The message was sent by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which filed a brief in support of the public employee who served as the face for the Janus case. The conservative nonprofit has received donations from organizations linked to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has made her distaste for teachers unions known.

The message links to a freshly created website for a group called New Choice NY. There, a red button with the words “opt out” in capital letters takes users to an electronic form to stop paying dues, which New Choice promises to pass along to employers.

Bob Bellafiore, a spokesman for the group, said that New Choice isn’t out to thin union ranks — only to inform members of their new rights. The group, which is backed by a conservative organization called Americans for Fair Treatment, has sent emails to about 500,000 union members, he said, and has received more than 20,000 hits on its website.

“If people decide to leave the union, it’s the union’s fault. It’s got nothing to do with New Choice New York, or anybody else,” Bellafiore said. “Our goal is to help people make an informed decision.”

If the key to keeping membership strong depends on grassroots organizing, then the work ahead could be daunting. New York City is home to almost 2,000 schools. The UFT may find that it has strength in numbers, but its size could also mean it’s unwieldy and difficult to connect with individual members.

“The scale here is going to be tough,” said Luce, the CUNY professor.

While the teachers unions have been on high alert, the battle has been quiet so far in New York City. Teachers here haven’t reported receiving the same kinds of emails as their colleagues in places like White Plains. The next window for teachers to opt-out of paying their dues is months away. But the lead-up to the Supreme Court decision gave groups like New Choice a long runway to plan an organized campaign.

“New Choice New York is in this for the long haul,” Bellafiore said. “This isn’t a drop in and out thing.”