janus v. AFSCME

Supreme Court decision in Janus deals blow to nation’s teachers unions

Teachers unions absorbed a deep but expected blow on Wednesday from the nation’s highest court.

The 5-4 ruling in the case, Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, means that states and school districts will no longer be able to require their employees to pay negotiating fees to the unions that bargain on their behalf. That could mean a steep decline in union membership and dues, which in turn will limit the unions’ political power — the hope of the conservative groups that helped bring the case.

“We conclude that public-sector agency-shop arrangements violate the First Amendment,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito in the majority opinion. He emphasized that employees must also affirmatively opt in to union membership, potentially making unions’ efforts to keep members even more challenging.

In a sharply worded dissent, Justice Elena Kagan warned: “Across the country, the relationships of public employees and employers will alter in both predictable and wholly unexpected ways.”

“Judicial disruption does not get any greater than what the Court does today,” Kagan wrote.

Unions have been preparing for this outcome, which seemed like an inevitability after Donald Trump won the presidential election. That gave him the opportunity to replace Antonin Scalia, whose unexpected death led to the 4-4 tie in a similar case two years ago.

Publicly, teachers unions have put on a brave face while acknowledging the challenges this decision would bring. Twenty-two states currently allow unions to collect those agency fees.

“Don’t count us out,” American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten tweeted after the decision’s release. “While today the thirst for power trumped the aspirations and needs of communities and the people who serve them, workers are sticking with the union because unions are still the best vehicle working people have to get ahead.”

The National Education Association, the nation’s largest union, has planned for staff cutbacks in anticipation of the ruling and projects that 300,000 members will leave. In California, unions have gotten laws passed designed to help keep teachers in the fold, including ensuring school districts provide unions with teacher contact information and opportunities to meet with new members. In New York City, the powerful United Federation of Teachers, which counts nearly 200,000 members, has knocked on thousands of classroom doors to tell teachers about the case and persuade them to stick with the union.

“Our union will remain strong, and we will not be silenced,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said Wednesday.

The decision will have less of an impact in the 28 where mandatory fees were already banned, like Tennessee.

To critics who say teachers unions have been a barrier to school reform efforts, the case presents another opportunity to push for their vision. Those critics include Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has assailed unions as “defenders of the status quo.”

A number of states, including Wisconsin and Michigan, have worked to cripple unions in a manner consistent with Janus. In both states, union membership has dropped and union dues have fallen, though significantly more so in Wisconsin than Michigan. “We’re already in a post-Janus world,” a union spokesperson in Michigan recently told Chalkbeat.

Research subsequently found that in Wisconsin, where new laws severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt out of unions, student achievement suffered and teacher compensation fell. In Michigan, weaker unions and tougher evaluations led to a spike in teachers turnover in disadvantaged schools, another study found.

The decision comes as teachers across the country are increasingly energized politically: running for office, pushing for higher salaries, and protesting DeVos.

“It’s like the best of times and the worst of times,” said Weingarten in Education Week.

That suggests that if Janus weakens unions in a way that means that they can’t bargain for higher pay, it could encourage the kind of teacher uprisings and strikes recently seen in states like Oklahoma, Arizona, and West Virginia to spread.

The legal case turned on the First Amendment: plaintiff Mark Janus, a child support specialist employed by the state of Illinois, argued that requiring him to pay union fees amounted to forcing him to support a political organization, violating his free speech rights. Janus is not required to join the union, and public employees like him can instead choose to pay “agency fees” to cover bargaining costs rather than full union membership costs. Unions argue that this avoids a free-rider problem, where workers can benefit from union contract negotiation without paying for it; Janus argued that such negotiations are inherently political.

In a unanimous 1977 case, the Supreme Court ruled that although government can’t make employees join a union, they can require payment of agency fees. Today’s decision overrules that case.

holding pattern

The Denver district asked for state intervention in a pending teacher strike. Here’s what that means.

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat
Office of Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.

After meeting with Gov. Jared Polis for roughly an hour Wednesday morning, Denver Public Schools officials formally requested state intervention in a potential teacher strike.

The request is not a surprise — Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova said she would ask for state intervention almost immediately after the Denver teachers union on Jan. 8 filed its notice of intent to strike — and it does not necessarily mean the strike won’t go forward. It could, however, delay it.

In a press release late Wednesday afternoon, Polis said he had not made a decision.

“The governor and the Department of Labor and Employment will continue to engage both sides and encourage both sides to return to the table and continue negotiating on a path forward,” the governor’s office said.

Without state intervention, a Denver strike could start as soon as Monday.

However, no action can occur while a decision is pending. Now that the district has filed its request, teachers cannot legally strike until a decision about intervention is made. That potentially provides time for more negotiations to occur. 

By law, the teachers union has 10 days to respond to the district’s request for intervention, and the department then has 14 days to make a decision. However, neither the union nor the department is required to take the full time, state labor officials said. That means this could all play out before the end of the week, clearing the way for a strike, or drag into February.

Denver Classroom Teachers Association members voted overwhelmingly to go on strike after months of negotiations over teacher pay and the structure of ProComp, a system that provides bonuses and incentives to teachers on top of base pay, ended without an agreement.

The two sides are about $8 million apart and also disagree strongly about how much money should go toward incentives for teachers at high-poverty schools. The union wants more money to go toward base pay, while the districts sees the incentives as an important tool in attracting and keeping teachers at more challenging schools.

Typically, the Department of Labor and Employment only intervenes when both sides request it. However, the head of the department, who is appointed by the governor, can intervene if he believes it is in the public interest or if the governor does. The state cannot impose an agreement on the two sides, but it can provide mediation, conduct fact-finding, or hold hearings to try to bring the two parties together.

During the intervention period, which can last as long as 180 days, teachers and special service providers, like nurses, counselors, and school psychologists, also could not legally strike.

Denver Public Schools and the teachers union already have been working with a mediator for months. In the Pueblo teachers strike in May, the state declined to intervene because the two sides had already used mediation and fact-finding. 

“The governor is being thoughtful about the appropriate role he can take in helping settle this,” Cordova said as she left her meeting with the governor at midday.

Shortly afterward, a spokesperson for the Department of Labor and Employment confirmed that Denver Public Schools had filed a request for intervention with the department.

Representatives of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association declined to comment, but posted a statement on their website. They told all members to report to work “until we hear otherwise.”

“We are disappointed in the district’s decision to involve a third party to delay our strike rather than negotiating in good faith with educators in Denver,” the union said. “We know the district has the resources to reach an agreement, and we hope to return to the table to continue negotiations on a fair compensation system for all teachers and [special service providers].”

Union representatives also met with the governor Wednesday.

“This is his effort to hear from both sides, to give both of us a chance to explain why we’ve created our proposals the way we have, and think about next steps,” Cordova said.

Cordova said she believes an outside party can help make progress where the two sides could not.

“There is deep mistrust on the part of our teachers,” she said. “Being in a place where we all feel confident we understand the facts would be really helpful.”

Denver Public Schools parents received an automated message from Cordova on Wednesday morning assuring them that school will continue as usual this week.

District officials are asking parents to make sure their contact information and any student medication records are up to date in the Parent Portal as they expect to use substitute teachers and redeployed central office staff — people who will not know students and their families the way classroom teachers do — to keep schools operating.

Here is the request the district filed with the state:



silver screen

United Federation of Teachers drops more than $1 million on new ad campaign

PHOTO: Courtesy photo/UFT
In a new ad released by The United Federation of Teachers, a teacher crouches at a student's desk and smiles.

Amid a wave of teacher activism nationwide and major threats to the influence of unions, the United Federation of Teachers is expected to spend more than $1 million on a primetime television and streaming ad featuring local educators.

The 30-second spot hit the airwaves on Jan. 23 and will run through Feb. 1, with an expected audience of 11 million television viewers and 4 million impressions online, according to the union.

Featuring a chorus of singing students, bright classrooms, and a glamour shot of the city, the ad is called “Voice.” A diverse group of teachers declares: “Having a voice makes us strong. And makes our public schools even stronger.” It ends with the message, “The United Federation of Teachers. Public school proud.”

The union, the largest local in the country, typically runs ads this time of year, as the legislative session in Albany heats up and city budget negotiations kick-off. But this time, the campaign launches against the backdrop of an emboldened teaching force across the country, with a teacher strike in Los Angeles and another potentially starting next week in Denver.

UFT is also eager to prove its worth after the recent Janus Supreme Court ruling, which could devastate membership by banning mandatory fees to help pay for collective bargaining. So far, membership has remained strong but the union could face headwinds from organized right-to-work groups and the sheer number of new hires that come into the New York City school system every year.

The ad will run locally during programs including “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and “Good Morning America,” on networks such as MSNBC and CNN, and on the streaming service Hulu. You can watch the ad here.