Janus reality check

By Larry Sand
May 15, 2018

With a SCOTUS decision just weeks away, a little perspective is in order. 

As one who has closely followed the Janus v AFSCME case, I am amazed at the hyperbolic ranting about it from certain quarters that bombards us on a daily basis. If successful, the suit would allow government workers in 22 states the right to be employed without being forced to pay money to a union. Period.

But various interested parties have gone bonkers over Janus. An American Federation of Teachers press release claims that the case is a “blatantly political and well-funded plot to use the highest court in the land to further rig the economic rules against everyday working people.” (Actually Janus will unrig the rules by replacing the 41 year-old Abood decision and give workers complete freedom of choice.

Are Teachers’ Unions on the Brink of Demise?” screamed the headline in the Feb. 13 issue of Education Week. As things stand now, the ruling will affect 22 forced union states. The other 28 states already protect worker freedom, and all of them maintain teachers’ and other public employee unions.

California Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León claims the case will “cripple unions” and political commentator Arthur Schaper wrote of the teachers unions’ looming “political demise.”

Nonsense. These types of comments may move the adrenaline needle into the red zone for some, but really are quite off-target. Here is what we can count on:

The unions will not go gently into the night. Many unions are attempting to re-rig the game in their favor. California’s AB 119, for example, gives government unions access to all workers’ personal contact information and requires rookies to attend a mandatory union “orientation” meeting, during which a union huckster tries his best to convince a captive audience about the glories of union membership.

The unions have also gone to great lengths to trap workers. For example, the state teachers union in Minnesota has come out with a form that forces teachers to reject union membership on a yearly basis and within a narrow time frame. Unions in New York and California have cooked up similar schemes. It is possible, however, that should SCOTUS decide in favor in Janus, the ruling could include wording that would free any worker from a union contract immediately and permanently, thus rendering this kind of union trickery null and void.

With an assist from Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, legislatures in blue states could help the unions financially. During the Friedrichs case, Sotomayor opined that the California Teachers Association “under California law is a State entity.” Of course, the teachers union is not in any way a state entity, but rather a private corporate concern with government rendered perks – like not paying a penny in income tax. No matter. Hawaii has picked up on Sotomayor’s comment, and its state legislature is considering a resolution which would ensure union solvency by dinging taxpayers for any money the union comes up short, should forced dues payments become a thing of the past. It’s safe to say that other blue states will be watching the progress of this resolution closely.

How many teachers will stop paying the union? Very hard to say. When Michigan went right-to-work in 2012, the Michigan Education Association lost 25 percent of its teachers. Mike Antonucci, using information from a National Education Association leadership meeting in March, suggests that the union quit-rate nationally could be as low as 11 percent in newly freed states. Under the worst case scenario, the union could lose about 36 percent of its members.

Additionally, with greater worker freedom, more unions could disaffiliate. There is a subset of teachers who like their local union but see no reason why they have to also pay money to a state and national affiliate, which are little more than progressive political organizations. And there is major financial incentive to do so. In California, for example, CTA skims $677 and NEA $189 from each of its members every year. Local dues vary, but usually are about $200 a year. If a local decides to disaffiliate, it would appeal to many workers for financial and ideological reasons. A case in point is Clark County, Nevada, where, due to “quarrels over lobbying priorities, endorsements in the Democratic gubernatorial primary and ongoing lawsuits,” the 18,700 member union just said good bye to its state and national branches.

What will the political fallout be? The most prudent answer here would be “somewhat to considerable.” It’s no secret that teacher union political spending goes almost entirely to leftist candidates and causes. Reflecting this fact, AFT’s director of field programs for educational issues Rob Weil said that the progressive movement “will lose resources (both $$ and people) which will lessen their impact. Some social partners may, unfortunately, no longer exist.” In Michigan, after its 25 percent drop off in membership, the union cut its political spending by 49 percent. For those of us who are not of the progressive persuasion, this is indeed heartening.

Heartening. That’s about as good as it gets for now. Mike Antonucci suggests that while the unions will alter their M.O., Janus is not a game changer. Unions and school districts will still wrangle over pay, work rules, etc. and that strikes will still occur. In other words, “peace is not at hand.” 

I pretty much agree with Antonucci. But while the sun will still rise in the east with a decision for the plaintiff, it could be the first important step in a process that would truly level the playing field. More on this soon.

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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