paying dues

UFT bracing for fallout from Supreme Court decision in Janus case

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
UFT President Michael Mulgrew this winter hosted a discussion on the potential impacts of Janus.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday issued a decision that is widely seen as a blow to public unions and could have particularly dramatic effects in New York City, where the United Federation of Teachers counts more than 100,000 members.

The 5-4 decision means that public unions in more than 20 states can no longer collect “agency fees” from non-members. Sometimes called a “fair share” fee, it is meant to help unions cover the cost of negotiating contracts that cover all workers, regardless of whether they are union members.

Now that employees have a financial incentive to opt-out of their unions, the decision is expected to drain membership, and with it, money that has helped fuel labor’s political clout.

The impact will likely be magnified for the UFT, the largest union local in the country. UFT President Michael Mulgrew was defiant, calling the Supreme Court “perverted and twisted” by political interests.

“As I promised my mother numerous times, I will pray for all of them when they’re burning in hell,” he said.

The decision was hardly a surprise: Justices had deadlocked on a similar case in 2016 after the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia. With Neil Gorsuch now on the bench, observers expected a conservative-leaning court to side with Mark Janus, an Illinois public employee who challenged the fee on the grounds that it essentially forced him to support a political organization and violated his right to free speech.

Elected officials across the labor-friendly state were quick to show their support Wednesday. Flanked by union leaders in New York City, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order that exempts the personal information of state employees from public disclosure, saying anti-union forces in other places have used lists of addresses and phone numbers to “harass” public employees into leaving their unions. Mayor Bill de Blasio, meanwhile, joined more than 20 mayors from around the country in signing a symbolic pledge to protect workers rights.

“We believe working people deserve fairness. It’s clear that the conservative Supreme Court justices don’t share that same sentiment,” de Blasio said in an emailed statement.

The UFT relies on dues and agency fees for about 85 percent of its $185 million budget, according to federal documents. Currently, about 1,200 educators opt out of the UFT and pay agency fees instead. Union officials said those people can stop paying all fees immediately — which translates to a financial hit of about $1.5 million annually.

Members have an extremely short window to decide whether to stop paying dues for the upcoming year: Though educators can drop their membership at any time, the dues obligation can only be cancelled between June 15 and June 30 every year — giving members a chance to act on the court’s decision immediately.

With the Supreme Court decision, the number of members dropping their union is only expected to grow. That is what happened in states like Michigan, where membership in the state teachers union dropped by 20 percent after “right to work” laws outlawed mandatory agency fees.

The Janus decision cuts particularly deep because, writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito emphasized that employees must opt in to union membership. In New York City, union officials said teachers automatically become agency-fee payers, but they must opt-in to the union by signing a membership card.

Nat Malkus, deputy director of education policy at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said the opt-in requirement could have an “enormous” impact on membership numbers.

“With the requirement for affirmative consent, any declines that were anticipated before Janus are likely lowball estimates,” he said. “The opt-in, opt-out difference can be just unbelievable.”

In anticipation of the Janus ruling, New York lawmakers recently passed legislation to help stem the potential losses and give members an incentive to keep their union cards.  The law gives union representatives time to meet with new employees, and allows unions to pull back services to non-members.

Under the law, UFT officials said the union is not obligated to provide a lawyer to non-members who face disciplinary charges, and that the UFT can limit services such as teacher trainings to only dues-paying members.

Dues are about $117 a month for teachers, while social workers, paraprofessionals, and members in other school jobs pay different amounts. Members also have the option of  contributing to a separate political fund, which the UFT uses to lobby lawmakers and support union-friendly candidates.

Many educators took to Twitter to show support for their union, using hashtags like #UnionProud.

“I know how important it is to have the UFT benefits as a way of protection,” wrote Lisa Ringston, a 20-year veteran of the education department who currently works with children who have autism. “With what little dues we pay, it goes a long way, and taking it away would be very detrimental.

Wednesday’s decision comes less than a week after a huge victory for the UFT — striking a deal with New York City to provide paid family leave to teachers. The union had been pressuring the city on the issue for months, and securing that victory could help demonstrate the UFT’s worth at a time when attracting dues-paying members could become more difficult.

The union took up the cause after a petition launched by two teachers went viral. Some say the Supreme Court decision is another opportunity for the union to become more responsive to its rank-and-file.

“Unions will need to better connect with their members,” said Evan Stone, co-founder of the advocacy group Educators for Excellence. “In light of this ruling teachers need to recommit to their unions, and unions need to recommit to their members by becoming even more democratic, diverse, and student-focused.”

Even before the decision was rendered, the UFT took on an aggressive campaign to hold on to members — who are now free to choose whether to keep supporting the union financially. But they are bracing for potential losses. Leaders have reportedly already considered downsizing their operations.

Mulgrew said the union will continue a recruitment and information campaign that started last winter. Along with local legislation to protect workers, he said that one-on-one conversations with teachers will be key in retaining membership.

“Having that conversation and building more active chapters at every work site has been the main push,” he said.

Daniel Lund Holstein, a high school math teacher, volunteered to knock on hundreds of doors of fellow union members to convince them to continue paying dues. He said the looming decision added to a feeling that many teachers have of being under attack, and inspired most to double-down and show support.

“The majority of teachers I talk to are very savvy about what exactly they get for those dues — and it is extensive,” he said. “When you have a bunch of teachers in the room or you have a one-on-one conversation, you have a lot of excitement about a revitalized union.”

If you’re an educator, let us know how the decision will affect your decisions about union membership.

Read more about potential impact on New York City here. And read about what has happened to schools, teachers, and students in other states after union protections were weakened.

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.

lesson plan

Denver hopes to keep its schools open in a strike — and the union wants you to send your kids

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post
Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Dora Moore K-8 School in Denver.

Superintendent Susana Cordova says she is committed to keeping Denver schools open and continuing to educate students in the event of a strike.

In Los Angeles, where a teacher strike is entering its second week, many students are watching movies and playing games. Cordova said she plans to do more for the 71,000 students in district-run schools if teachers vote to strike and state intervention does not lead to a deal. The 21,000 students who attend charter schools will not be affected.

“We want to assure parents school will stay open,” she said. “We know it is critically important that we focus on the education of our kids. Sixty percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. We know they depend on school not just for their meals but for their access to opportunity.”

Negotiations broke down Friday between the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers and special service providers such as nurses, school psychologists, and counselors. A strike vote is taking place in two sessions, one Saturday and another Tuesday. The earliest a strike could start is Jan. 28.

This would be the first strike in 25 years in the state’s largest school district. In 1994, the district used more than 1,000 substitutes to keep schools open, though many parents kept their children at home, something union leaders encouraged.

It’s not clear yet how high teacher participation in a strike would be. During the final week of bargaining, some teachers reported near universal support in their buildings, while others said some of their colleagues were uncertain. Some teachers have said they disagree with the union position in the negotiations and won’t participate as a matter of principle.

Teachers who strike do not get paid while they are not at work.

Cordova said the district is “in the process of building out our sub pool” and offering higher pay to those willing to work during a strike. But she declined to say how many substitutes the district could call on, and some teachers say they already have a hard time finding subs for routine absences.

Substitutes who work during a strike will earn $200 a day, double the normal rate, and “super subs” who work more than a certain number of days a year will get $250.

Many central office staff who have past teaching experience will be sent to schools to work with students. Cordova said the district is working on pre-packaged lesson plans for every grade and subject area so that learning can still take place, and officials will prioritize placing qualified staff members with special education and preschool students, those she deemed most vulnerable.

Students who get free or reduced-price lunch will still be able to eat in school cafeterias.

For its part, the union is encouraging parents to send their children to school, but with a different purpose.

“One major goal of a strike is for school buildings to be shut down as a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators,” the union wrote in an FAQ document. “To this end, we encourage parents to send their students to school if their school building remains open. Student safety is paramount for all district schools, therefore the district will be obliged to close schools if safety becomes an issue due to limited staffing.”

Union officials said they were working to establish alternative daytime care with community partners like churches and Boys and Girls Clubs should schools close.