The political aftermath of Janus v AFSCME

By Larry Sand
November 7, 2017

The case is pretty cut-and-dried, but the ramifications are anything but.

Janus v AFSCME is due to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court early in 2018, with a decision announced in June. If the lawsuit is successful, no teacher or any public employee in the U.S. would have to pay money to a union as a condition of employment. It’s that simple. But what comes after Janus is anything but simple, and far more is at stake than worker freedom.

Perhaps the biggest change that could come about will be political. As things stand now, the teachers unions are major players in national, state and local politics. In 2016, the American Federation of Teachers donated almost $33 million to candidates, PACs, etc., with a mere $10,700 going to Republicans/conservatives. The National Education Association’s political spending wasn’t much more balanced. NEA spent almost $28 million with just $347,000 going in a rightward direction. These numbers are not at all unusual for the teachers unions.

OpenSecrets.org reports that since 1990, NEA is the third biggest national political donor organization, having spent $122 million with just 3 percent going to Republicans. AFT, number 6 on the OpenSecrets.org list, has spent $107 million during the same time period with a scant one-third of 1 percent going rightward.

It’s important to note that in addition to political activities and lobbying, the unions also make contributions, gifts and grants to entities that are political in nature, but technically aren’t considered “political spending.” For example, AFT gave $250,000 to the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation and another $150,000 to the Clinton Global Initiative, registered 501c(3) tax-exempt organizations, both of which are involved on the fringes of politics, not to mention having a very questionable track record.

Do these numbers match teachers’ political leanings? Hardly. As Mike Antonucci wrote in 2010, “The 2005 NEA survey, consistent with previous results, found that members are slightly more conservative (50%) than liberal (43%) in political philosophy.”

So if teachers are given a choice to pay up, what will the national unions do with their political bucks?

With that question in mind, AFT sent director of field programs Rob Weil to speak to the Baltimore Teachers Union. In a presentation titled “Janus, Unions, and the Rest,” Weil details the potential ramifications of the lawsuit. In one of his more interesting comments, he posits that “Unions may be forced to spend larger amounts of time and money on membership maintenance instead of other more progressive union activities.” He adds that the progressive moment as a whole, and many specific groups, “will lose resources (both $$ and people) which will lessen their impact. Some social partners may, unfortunately, no longer exist.”

In other words, without forced dues, the unions may actually have to pay attention to their members and their political preferences. Antonucci has a different take, however. He writes, “Although their overall numbers will be reduced, it is conceivable that unions will become more progressive organizations. Those who pay dues out of personal choice, rather than mandated obligation, are more likely to support their unions’ political goals as well. There will be less union, but it could be union concentrate.”

While Antonucci may be right, I lean toward Weil’s scenario. If, as he suggests, the unions want to keep their numbers – and bottom line – healthy, they will have to moderate their one-sided political spending. And if the unions either reduce their political spending overall, or even support some right-of-center candidates, the country could see a considerable change in the political landscape.

While 70 percent of all teachers are in unions at this time, that number will go down if Janus flies, and if the unions don’t adjust their political stance, that 70 percent could shrink considerably.

Whether the unions double down on political spending or moderate it to take their members’ views into account, change is a-comin’.

(Also, if Janus is successful, there are many “other shoes” that could drop. I’ll cover those issues in a future post.)

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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