The annual meeting of the National Education Association, the country’s largest public-sector union, held in Minnesota this week, was much more high stakes than in years past. Typically, the convention is a chance for educators to vote on bread-and-butter issues like budget priorities and advocacy target areas. But the 8,000 or so students, retired teachers, and NEA delegates who descended on the Minneapolis Convention Center had more existential questions on their minds. In the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that dealt a crippling blow to public-sector unions, they debated strategies to expand their membership, keep union members apprised of their rights, and recover from the impending financial loss that is sure to happen in a post-Janus world.
In Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, a 5-4 Supreme Court majority ruled last week that despite laws requiring public-sector unions to represent all workers in a workplace, fees charged to nonmembers to support the costs of collective bargaining violate the First Amendment. For more than four decades, the court has held it constitutional for unions to collect money from nonmembers to support the costs of negotiating contracts on their behalf. Janus overturned that precedent, meaning that employees can now enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining without having to pay for it. Labor unions are bracing for substantial revenue loss.
Now, the choice before teachers is paying either hundreds of dollars in annual membership dues, or nothing at all. The NEA, which represents a little over 3 million members, is forecasting a loss of 370,000 members over the next two years. Approximately 88,000 educators have been nonmembers paying NEA agency fees, and the union anticipates at least several hundred thousand current members will also rescind their union cards.
“Janus was nothing more than a pretext for the Koch brothers and all their funded friends to push for union members to drop out,” NEA President Lily Eskelsen García told The Intercept. “With Janus, they don’t care about the [agency] fee payers, they care about reducing our resources and our actual members.” She pointed to the multimillion-dollar effort recently launched by a Koch-backed group to persuade dues-paying members to opt out.
In light of these realities, the NEA approved a two-year budget at its convention that scales back union expenditures by $50 million. Union leadership maintains that this scale-back will not impact the organization’s political activities. “We’re looking at getting economies of scale as best we can,” explained Jim Testerman, the senior director at the NEA’s Center for Organizing. “How many more meetings can we do digitally, can we cut back on food, travel, are there different ways to approach the work. We also didn’t replace 40 staff who retired in January.”
Now, the choice before teachers is paying either hundreds of dollars in annual membership dues, or nothing at all.
While some states where NEA wields the most influence, like California, New York, and New Jersey, have required nonmembers to pay agency fees, the recent wave of teacher strikes that exploded across the nation in states like West Virginia, Arizona, and Oklahoma occurred in right-to-work states — which purport to protect workers from being required to join unions, but make collective bargaining more challenging and don’t require agency fees. Conservatives point to the walkouts as proof that agency fees aren’t really necessary. But workers in right-to-work states say they understand their efforts are aided by the national unions, which will certainly take a financial hit from Janus.
Back in the 1980s, when Eskelsen García was a sixth-grade teacher, she served as bargaining chair for her union in Utah, a non-collective bargaining state. “There’s still a lot you can do without anyone’s permission,” she said. Just as superintendents and school board members largely supported the teachers who went on strike in red states this year, Eskelsen García said many administrators have shown willingness to bargain with unions even when not compelled to by state statute.
Indeed, at the NEA convention, despite the looming financial threats, the thousands of attendees were palpably emboldened by the teacher walkouts, collective actions that gave them a renewed and clearer sense of their own power. Though the protests were not union-initiated — beginning spontaneously with the grassroots — Testerman, of the NEA’s Center for Organizing, said his union is working to marry “the organic and the organized” as actions erupt. “It’s something we got better with over time, and Arizona was a good example,” he told The Intercept. “You don’t want the union to take it over, but having some organized entity who can get you permits and porta-potties and things like that can help you get even more done.” According to Testerman, Arizona’s NEA affiliate has seen an 8 percent increase in its membership since last year. “I don’t think the walkouts are over,” he added, noting that the future of the movement will depend on what happens in upcoming legislative sessions.
One of the most contentious items considered at the NEA convention was a proposed constitutional amendment to create a new category of union membership, open to “any person who demonstrates support in advancing the cause of public education” and “advocates for the mission, vision and core values of the Association.”
The idea was formed last year in the wake of Betsy DeVos’s nomination to lead the Department of Education, Eskelsen García explained, when parents and community members flooded the NEA with questions on how they could speak out in opposition to DeVos and better support public education. Then, in the midst of the teacher strikes, the NEA president said, the outpouring support from non-educators proved crucial in building a broad political coalition for the walkouts. Under the proposal, so-called community ally members would pay minimal union dues but would be ineligible to vote on union matters or hold governance positions. The biggest opportunity this membership category would create, supporters explained, would be to make it possible for community allies to contribute to the NEA’s political action committee; only NEA members can legally contribute to the PAC, and given the expected decline in membership, this change would have given the PAC an additional stream of funds. The proposal also would have enabled the union to contact supportive members of the public directly. “We’re organizers in our bones,” Eskelsen García told The Intercept. “Why not organize them?”
“We’re organizers in our bones. Why not organize them?”
The proposal triggered heated debate on Tuesday afternoon. Some members voiced concerns about opening up the union to outside political influence. “Selling stockholder shares in our union is a dangerous one,” warned a delegate from Michigan. “When you purchase stock, you expect a return on your investment.” Marshall Thompson, a delegate from Minnesota, called the idea half-baked. “Does my union card mean something or not?” he asked. “Bill Gates should not be able to buy one.”
NEA leadership defended the proposal, explaining that four other major unions, including AFSCME, have a similar membership category for the public, and all but 14 of the NEA’s state affiliates do, too. For example, the Pennsylvania NEA affiliate has a “Partners for Public Education” membership category. Plus, NEA leaders added, community allies would have the same $5,000 political contribution limits to the PAC as do regular members. Tripp Jeffers, a delegate from North Carolina, spoke in favor of the amendment, saying a version of it already works well in his state. “We get by with a little help from our friends,” he quipped. Joe Thomas, the president of the Arizona Education Association, also defended the amendment, reminding the audience that the parents and community members who walked alongside educators during Arizona’s six-day teacher strike were instrumental in helping the union rebut the political narrative that their action was solely about teacher wages.
That was not enough to convince the 8,000 delegates, though. The measure was narrowly defeated on Wednesday, with just over 60 percent of delegates voting in favor. Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority to pass.
Janus has also sparked a legal and political debate over whether dues-paying members need to proactively reauthorize their union membership. The majority opinion, authored by Justice Samuel Alito, states that “neither an agency fee nor any other form of payment to a public-sector union may be deducted from an employee, nor may any other attempt be made to collect such a payment, unless the employee affirmatively consents to pay.” Conservatives have latched onto this “affirmative consent” idea to say that all those represented by a union, members and agency-fee payers alike, should have to affirmatively opt in.
But labor groups have taken an alternative reading. At the NEA convention, the union’s general counsel Alice O’Brien told the crowd of delegates that Janus “does not mean that unions have to re-sign existing members. Janus is about fee payers,” she said. “Nothing in Janus supports an employer [who] insists a union must submit new proof that existing voluntary members want to remain members.”
Eskelsen García told The Intercept that the NEA has already received reports of school districts and school boards asking unions to submit new proof of membership. “But Janus doesn’t require that, and part of our mission right now is we have to make sure that our folks across the country understand that Janus was very specific in saying you can’t require a nonmember to pay fees,” she said. “It doesn’t require re-signing up members, but we anticipated there would be a lot of misinformation from the Koch brothers and others. We’ll get this straightened out.”
The question over recommitments first arose three years ago, when the Supreme Court heard the case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, an anti-public-sector union case considered to be the predecessor of Janus. (Friedrichs also challenged public-sector agency fees, but Justice Antonin Scalia’s unexpected death in 2016 resulted in a 4-4 decision that left the fees alive until Janus was brought before the court.) Despite the teacher union’s position that recommitments are not legally necessary, both the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers have been working since then on getting recommitments from all their members. The AFT reports that out of 800,000 members in 18 states with agency fees, more than 500,000 members have pledged membership renewals since January.
“We’re not taking anything for granted.”
“The recommit campaigns have really been an organizing strategy to go out and talk to our members about what these Supreme Court cases mean, and the value of belonging and acting collectively,” Testerman told The Intercept. “If members don’t know who the union is and what the union stands for, they are not likely to remain a member, and we’re not taking anything for granted.” He said the NEA has seen a growth in membership for the last three years in a row, at an average of 0.5 percent per year.
But the tactics some union affiliates have taken to secure member recommitments have stirred controversy, and they may be legally vulnerable in the post-Janus world.
In Minnesota, for example, the 86,000-member statewide teachers union asked educators to fill out membership renewal forms for the 2017-18 school year, authorizing the union to deduct dues. The forms included a fine-print disclosure that said “this authorization shall remain in effect and shall be automatically renewed from year to year, irrespective of my membership in the union, unless I revoke it by submitting written notice to both my employer and the local union during the seven-day period that begins on September 24 and ends on September 30” (emphasis added).
The general counsel for the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank, said the Minnesota teachers union was “betting that most teachers will just sign the card without reading it, or understanding what it means — and just keep paying.”
Los Angeles teachers took a similar approach. In its recommitment campaign, the United Teachers of Los Angeles asked members to sign membership forms with fine print that said, “This agreement shall be automatically renewed from year to year unless I revoke it in writing during the window period, irrespective of my membership in UTLA.” The legal language was first reported by Mike Antonucci, who runs the Education Intelligence Agency, a union watchdog site. “So a teacher who takes an administrative position, or leaves teaching altogether, and is then ineligible to be a UTLA member, will still be on the hook for dues payments until the next window comes around,” Antonucci surmised.
Both the Minnesota and Los Angeles recommitment forms are constitutional under Janus’s “opt-in” requirement, said Charlotte Garden, a professor at Seattle University School of Law. She added that she “also expect[s] the National Right to Work Foundation or other anti-union groups to challenge them in court, arguing they aren’t solicitous enough of objectors.” Garden said those types of challenges will “bring into conflict” two beliefs held by conservative members of the Supreme Court: that unions “must take various affirmative steps to facilitate the rights of objectors they represent” and that “employees should be held to the contracts they sign.”
Some conservative-backed litigation is already coming down the pipe.
Eight NEA state affiliates, including some in New York, Maryland, California, and Washington, are currently targets of class action lawsuits seeking to recover agency fees previously paid to the teacher unions before Janus. “The lawsuit we filed is a refund of the fees that were illegally extracted,” said John Bursch, the lawyer who filed the class action on behalf of California teachers. O’Brien, the NEA’s general counsel, reminded delegates at the convention that whoever replaces Justice Anthony Kennedy, who announced his retirement just hours after siding with the majority in Janus, could help decide whether unions must pay back agency fees or not.
Another case, filed in February 2017, takes square aim at union opt-out rules. In Yohn v. California Teachers Association, Ryan Yohn and seven other California educators objected not only to paying agency fees but also to bureaucratic hurdles employees must go through if they want to opt out of union membership. The teachers argue workers should have to affirmatively opt in to a union, not opt out. “We’re not free-riders, we’re forced riders,”one plaintiff told Education Week in February. The case is being brought by the Center for Individual Rights, the same libertarian law firm that brought the Friedrichs suit.
Sharon Block, the executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, told The Intercept that she has no doubt that conservative groups will aim to push the limits of the Supreme Court’s holding in Janus for cases like Yohn. “I’m afraid that Janus has opened up additional fronts in the war these groups are waging on public-sector unions and the labor movement more generally,” she said. “We will see litigation for years.”
In anticipation of a Supreme Court decision striking down agency fees, unions have been lobbying state legislators for the last few years to support new bills that could help labor strengthen its position. Specifically, labor organizations have pushed for new measures that would more easily allow union representatives to make the case for membership to new public-sector employees and to limit the services unions have to provide to nonmembers.
Last year in California, the legislature passed two such bills: one that allows public-sector unions to give presentations to new employees during their job orientations, and another that restricts what government employers can say to their staff about the pros and cons of joining a union. Two bills are pending now that would give labor groups an opportunity to weigh in on a worker’s intent to cancel their union dues.
Maryland legislators passed a bill this spring requiring new teachers to meet with a union representative within 30 days of their hiring or by their first pay period. It became law in April without the signature of Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, signed a more expansive bill in May that gives unions a number of new protections, including the right to meet with new employees for at least a half-hour within 30 days of being hired and a guarantee that public employers will provide the union with exclusive representation contact information for all new employees.
“Janus is the latest attack on our union, but this ain’t our first rodeo.”
In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo in April signed what he called “the Janus bill,” which in addition to providing unions with contact information for all new public-sector workers, also makes clear that unions are not required to provide nonmembers with the full range of union services. For example, nonmembers facing disciplinary charges will now have to obtain their own attorneys, whereas the union covers legal representation for dues-paying members. Last week, immediately following the Janus decision, Cuomo issued an executive order to protect public employee contact information from those who may try to target them in union opt-out campaigns. It was mostly a symbolic gesture, since the state already has similar privacy protections on the books.
Aside from these bills, Block of the Labor and Worklife Program and Benjamin Sachs, a Harvard Law School professor and editor-in-chief of the On Labor blog, put forth another legislative proposal to help unions cope after Janus. “The simplest, and the most effective, move would be for states to change, quite subtly, the accounting system for union dues,” they wrote last week in Vox. While unionized public-sector workers currently earn about 17 percent more than their non-unionized counterparts on average, the now-unconstitutional agency fees have comprised about 2 percent of that wage premium. Under the system reviewed by the Supreme Court, employers paid this 2 percent to workers, and workers then had to pay that money back to the union as an agency fee. “But if public employers simply paid the 2 percent directly to the unions — giving the same 15 percent raise to employees but not channeling the extra 2 percent through employee paychecks,” Block and Sachs wrote, “then there would be no possible claim that employees were being compelled to do anything, and thus no constitutional problem.”
“We’re up against something pretty scary,” Eskelsen García said this week in Minneapolis, speaking before thousands of delegates. “Janus is the latest attack on our union, but this ain’t our first rodeo. … We don’t get scared, we get ready.”