Where We Stand: Achieving Together What We Cannot Do Alone

Right-wing groups have been waging war against public sector unions for many years, and, over the summer, the conservative bare-majority on the U.S. Supreme Court—cheered on by President Trump—handed them a win in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31. This case was about stripping unions of resources, with the ultimate aim of eradicating labor unions altogether. Why was this such a prized goal for the right wing? Because unions help level the imbalance between the rich and powerful and everyone else, and help working people get ahead.

Stamping out unions has long been the aim of many wealthy conservatives, because it’s easier for them to win elections, maintain economic dominance, and disempower workers when individuals can’t collectively improve their lives through the solidarity of a union.

Janus’ supporters argued that the “fair share fees” nonmembers pay for union representation violate their First Amendment rights, even though workers have the right not to join a union or pay for any of the union’s political work. Justice Elena Kagan dismissed the majority’s opinion as “weaponizing the First Amendment,” noting that the same argument was raised—and unanimously rejected—41 years ago in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, a precedent the Supreme Court has upheld six times. With this reversal, public employees who benefit from a collective bargaining agreement but choose not to join the union can opt to be “free riders” and not contribute anything for the benefits they receive, while the union must still represent them.

Right-wing groups are mobilizing and spending many millions of dollars to “defund and defang” unions by attempting to pick off our members, but they are sticking with the union. AFT locals throughout the country report that all or nearly all of their members have recommitted to their union. Workers are sticking with their unions because unions are still the best vehicle working people have to make a difference in their lives and their workplaces. Unions negotiate everything from manageable class sizes to safety equipment for emergency personnel. Workers covered by a union contract earn 13.2 percent more on average than nonunion workers, and they are more likely to have health insurance, paid leave, and retirement benefits.

As the recent teacher walkouts showed, the states where union density is the lowest have sharply cut back spending and investment in public education. Teachers, firefighters, nurses, and other public employees nationwide are signing recommitments to their unions, because they know that unions make possible what is impossible for individuals to accomplish on their own.

Educators for Excellence recently released a survey of educators that shows that a vast majority of teachers believe teachers unions are essential. The survey found that 85 percent of all teachers regard unions as important, including 74 percent of nonunion teachers. And they value the union even if they disagree with positions the union takes.

The public gets it, too. Even in our hugely polarized country, polling shows that people support teachers unions and agree that teachers aren’t paid enough. And voters in Missouri repealed a state law that would have weakened unions by an emphatic 2-1 ratio.

Linda Greenhouse, the Pulitzer Prize–winning, longtime Supreme Court reporter, observed that the court’s “attack on public employee unions has little to do with the Constitution and a whole lot to do with politics.” Indeed, the right wing of the Supreme Court is going well beyond its charge to interpret the Constitution.With the reliably conservative vote of Neil Gorsuch and the conservative leanings of Trump’s latest nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court is transforming from an impartial protector of constitutional liberties and minority rights to a partisan champion of the powerful and the political right—which is exactly how a web of right-wing, dark-money groups planned it.

In the last term, the Supreme Court ruled to allow states to purge eligible voters from their rolls, uphold Trump’s immigration ban, and protect employers from class-action lawsuits by workers with grievances. Sounds more like a legislative agenda than a judicial docket of the highest court of the land. The increasingly activist, deeply partisan, and anti-worker Supreme Court should be at the forefront of workers’ minds as they vote this November. The course of the country and the soul of our nation are in the balance.

Janus poses a challenge for public sector unions, one we have been preparing for. But it presents great opportunities as well, as unions have re-engaged with our members who, in turn, are sticking with their unions. I spoke with many educators as they headed back to school this fall. They expressed hopes and concerns that are both unique and universal—the elimination of a vital program, continued cuts in education spending, how to help struggling students, and their students’ safety. They know that, no matter what we seek to accomplish, we can achieve together through the union what we cannot do alone.

American Educator, Fall 2018