Not the End of Unions

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Soon, the Supreme Court will hand down its ruling in the case of Freidrichs v. California Teachers Association in what many in the press are terming a case that could be “the end of public employees unions” (see The Atlantic for a news analysis with that headline).  As someone experienced with the issue in question, I tend to be much less pessimistic about how this case could harm organized labor in general and teachers’ unions specifically.

The particulars are as follows:  In an important case from 1977 (Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, hereafter referenced as “Abood”), the court ruled that non-union members in workplaces with unions had to pay what has become known as their “fair share” of the costs of the union’s representing them.  You see, a union which is the “exclusive representative” for a group of employees has to provide services for all of them, whether or not they are union members.  Should a school board try to fire a teacher or if someone feels the contract is being violated and wants to file a grievance, the union must provide legal assistance, regardless of their membership status.  Similarly, the effort and expense of negotiating a new contract is borne by the union as well, with the resulting deal benefitting all employees, again including those who haven’t joined.  So the Abood ruling determined that non-members should contribute to the expenses of negotiating, grievances, and legal representation to which all employees were entitled.  “Fee payers,” as non-members forced to contribute became known, were NOT required to contribute to the political activities which unions fund, however.  It was the same basic principle that mandates you pay your taxes despite your objections to some of the activities in which our government engages.  Just because you opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq didn’t mean you got to withhold your April 15th responsibilities.

But that comparison is not exactly the same as unions are hardly identical to governments, bargaining a contract is not really like police protection, nor is defending someone from unfair job discipline totally similar to going to war.  Hence the controversy which has surrounded Abood ever since it was in place.  Keep in mind another dissimilarity, at least here in Illinois:  Public unions had to negotiate “fair share” language in each individual contract before it would be in effect for any one employee group.  The first school district in which I worked did not have any fair share language in its contract while I worked there from 1979-1987, and my second district (Hinsdale Township High School District 86) did not have fair share when I started there in 1987, but did bargain it into the 1993-1996 agreement. (Yes, I was a part of the Hinsdale High School Teachers Association [HHSTA] bargaining team which negotiated that contract.)  In other words, the only school districts in Illinois where fair share exists are the ones in which employee groups have negotiated it into their contracts.  As the Illinois Labor Relations Board defines it on their web page, a fair share clause is, “An agreement between the employer and an employee organization under which the employees in a collective bargaining unit are required to pay their proportionate share of the costs of the collective bargaining process, contract administration, and pursuing matters affecting wages, hours, and other conditions of employment. Fair share fees may not exceed the amount of dues required of members.” Nobody forced Hinsdale 86 to put fair share language in its contract; the majority of employees felt it was…well, fair, and the school board agreed to the language in the contract, where it exists to this day.

But conservatives have always seen the Abood ruling as an infringement on others’ right to work; that “closed shop” (the term some have used in reference to Abood applications) was a classic illustration of unions bullying their way to what they wanted at the expense of workers’ freedoms.  And so now its merits have once again been debated (the ruling has been upheld by the court at least four other times, according to legal scholars much more informed than I), with a ruling to be announced in a few months.

But whether or not fair share violates workers’ first amendment rights or if Abood should be overturned is not the key point I would make on this court case.  (You can read much more, as I have, in the Washington Post, USA Today, The Center for Education Reform, American Enterprise Institute, The San Diego Union Tribune, and many more if you do a Google news search for Freidrichs v. California Teachers Association.)  I believe that reports of the demise of public sector union’s death, while worthy of note—especially by those who benefit from public sector unions—have been greatly exaggerated.

In Chicagoland suburban school districts, teachers unions have done quite well for their members over the last thirty years.  A high school teacher with advanced degrees in Darien, Highland Park, Downers Grove, Glenbrook,  Schaumburg, Des Plaines, Hinsdale, and many other towns can look forward to a salary in excess of $100,000 per 185-day work year (after twenty years and an advanced degree or two), good insurance benefits, and an excellent (if under constant attack recently) pension plan.  For them, the few hundred dollars union membership costs is hardly a financial burden, and they’re the ones acclimating the new kids into the field, generally encouraging them to join their schools’ unions.  And since it’s unlikely the fair share ruling (assuming it overturns Abood) will automatically apply or trigger mass membership exodus.  Peer pressure is still powerful in all workplaces, and most experienced teachers will strongly endorse their unions and use their influence with those who don’t understand the unions’ value to do the same.

Because union membership is a great benefit at an extremely reasonable price.  For your dues, you get legal representation for job-related issues should you need it, you have people to help you should your boss refuse to honor certain terms of your contract or harass you without just cause (See “Know the Law”  for more on that), you have paid lobbyists and legislative experts to watch out for your interests in Springfield and Washington, and you can even get discounts and deals on various consumer products (auto insurance and travel, for example) from marketers.  Mostly, however, you develop a sense, in this era of experts and politicians taking cheap shots at teachers while laying many of America’s problems at their feet, that somebody’s got your back.  A subjective, not provable feeling, perhaps, but in the time of people ignoring all of the obvious glaring flaws in political candidates because they seem “authentic,” you cannot discount how people feel.

Should Abood be overturned, you could also expect national and state teachers’ unions to refocus more of their resources on the rank and file, rather than political machinations.  Some would argue that as unions have gotten more influential and powerful, there has been less attention paid to members’ needs and too many forays into issues that have little to do with education and more to do with political alliances.  Even endorsing candidates can be perceived more as a necessary evil than a key function for public sector unions.  The conflicts of interest that occur when an employee organization is helping to fund the campaigns of its potential bosses—as is the case when a local teachers union endorses school board candidates, for example—has always made some union advocates uncomfortable.  I’ve always felt it would be better for unions to educate their members on the candidates’ various positions without making any recommendations, allowing members to make up their own minds.  Let teachers see just where Sanders, Cruz, Trump, Clinton, and Rubio stand on public school issues; it will be perfectly clear which candidates support teachers more emphatically, without the union then being perceived as an enemy of the unendorsed winner, with whom the union is expected to work regardless.  Would that strategy have made Governor Rauner less adamant about wiping unions out?  We’ll never know because the Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers were quite clear in their support of Pat Quinn, the incumbent Rauner defeated.  In case you didn’t know, both national teachers unions have already endorsed Hillary Clinton for 2016.  And where will that leave them should America choose to feel the Bern?

Then too, school boards have a way of making unions seem much more valuable to teachers.  My old union, the HHSTA, has constantly struggled to get teachers more involved, but participation soared during the fall of 2014 when a quartet of school board members (which is a majority) tried to take away many of the rights and benefits which the teachers had achieved over the decades in a single power grab.  Increased attendance at meetings, more willingness to help out, and a surge in HHSTA pride all led not only to a reasonable contract settlement, but motivated both the teachers and the public to work to rid themselves of this more extreme element.  And in the April 2015 school board elections, the three candidates who vowed to continue the war on the union were routed, getting less than half the votes of the three more moderate candidates, and another of the “gang of four” resigned shortly after the election.  Should Abood be overturned and public school governance see that as a sign to go after unions, you can bet that union membership and, even more importantly, active participation would increase significantly.  When I was HHSTA president, I used to tell my fellow advocates that our best membership organizer was a bad school board.  Although I meant that as a joke, there is a solid foundation of truth in the idea that dissatisfaction is one of the best ways to push people into action.  Instead of devastating unions, Freidrichs v. California Teachers Association could lead to a backlash of teacher advocacy.

So although there are some who see the possible end of the Abood ruling’s allowance of fair share language in contracts as a death knell for effective public sector unions, I believe it could actually have the opposite effect.  Good unions function to protect and serve their members, which most teachers associations have done well over the years.  And as the cliché goes, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger;” so too some stress to the ease with which public sector unions have been able to garner dues from teachers whether or not they were members could lead to more effective, stronger on-site organizations.  Like much in our convoluted world, Freidrichs v. California Teachers Association might have the opposite effect of weakening or destroying teachers unions; it could actually lead to their renaissance.

For much more on the importance and limitations of teachers’ unions, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools, excerpts of which can be found here.

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