Is This Supreme Court Decision The End Of Teachers Unions? : NPR Ed : NPR

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Activists rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 26.

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Activists rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 26.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling Wednesday that will reverberate through America’s schools for years.

In Janus v. AFSCME, a 5-4 court majority overturned precedent, saying that public sector unions, like those that represent law enforcement, state employees, and, of course, teachers, can no longer collect what are known as agency fees from nonmembers.

“States and public-sector unions may no longer extract agency fees from nonconsenting employees,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito. “The First Amendment is violated when money is taken from nonconsenting employees for a public-sector union; employees must choose to support the union before anything is taken from them.”

Until now, in nearly half of states (22), public employees who chose not to join the union still had to pay it something, because they’re still covered by unions’ collective-bargaining agreements. But some workers who oppose their unions’ politics, such as plaintiff Mark Janus, a state child-support specialist in Illinois, say that any payment infringes on their free speech rights.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court agreed.

Technically, unions have long been forbidden from using these agency fees to pay for political activity. In fact, it was another Supreme Court case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education in 1977, that made clear agency fees should only be used to cover costs related to bargaining. Applying them to a union’s political activities could violate a paying nonmember’s First Amendment rights. On Wednesday, though, the court called Abood “poorly reasoned.”

For supporters of the decision, like Lindsey Burke at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, the outcome is a big win for the “individual rights of teachers,” who will see more “hard-earned dollars in their pockets,” and a loss for unions that want to “garnish their wages to fund activities they disagree with.”

But union leaders and many of the millions of teacher members are angry and worried about what this means for the future of teachers unions. Here are a few educated guesses.

Unions will …

1. Lose members


Two education researchers, Bradley D. Marianno at the University of Southern California and Katharine O. Strunk at Michigan State University, looked at two states, Wisconsin and Michigan, where unions recently lost the power to collect agency fees. They published their analysis in the journal Education Next.

In Wisconsin, the law limiting union activity, Act 10, dramatically scaled back the union’s ability to bargain. After it passed in 2011, the state affiliate of the National Education Association lost more than half its members.

“We had to really shift our thinking,” says Ron Martin, a teacher and president of the Wisconsin NEA affiliate. “And our focus couldn’t just be on the bread and butter issues. We had to let people know your union does so much more than just bargain a contract.”

In Michigan, the researchers found, “in the three years after the reform, the state NEA lost about 21 percent of its members.” One reason for the decline, Marianno and Strunk found, was that unions also lost the ability to automatically withhold dues from paychecks, shifting enrollment from being the default to an opt-in system.

2. Lose money

It’s not too surprising that losing the ability to collect agency fees means less money for the unions. But it’s more complicated than that, says Nat Malkus, a resident scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.


In fact, nonmember fee-payers make up a relatively small group compared with the unions’ vast paying membership.

“Three percent of NEA’s budget are from fee-payers,” says Lily Eskelsen García, president of the NEA, the nation’s largest teachers union. “This is just a very, very tiny part.”

But, Malkus says, losing the ability to collect those fees will also drive down dues-paying membership.


In the past, in those 22 states that allowed agency fees, Malkus says, teachers had a choice between paying for full union membership and paying agency fees. But the fee was often roughly two-thirds the cost of dues. Since membership comes with additional benefits, many teachers chose $1,000 in dues versus $650 in agency fees. But now …

“Doing away with agency fees,” Malkus says, “that choice becomes, to pay either a thousand dollars in dues or nothing.” And, he believes, many teachers, especially low-end earners, will opt for paying nothing.

Martin, the union leader in Wisconsin, heard from many of these teachers in the wake of Act 10. He says they would often ask: ” ‘Well, why should I pay the dues? I’m gonna get whatever you guys work hard for me anyways.’ “

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