Some of the nation’s largest and most powerful unions are bracing for an exodus of members and a substantial financial hit after a Supreme Court decision that threatens their ability to collect fees, a ruling expected to severely diminish organized labor’s political strength and undermine its capacity to represent worker interests.
The court’s 5-to-4 ruling Wednesday applied to public-employee unions, such as those representing teachers, state workers and police officers. The court said states could no longer compel the payment of union fees by workers who don’t want to join, even if they benefit from the union’s activities, such as contract negotiations. The court ruled that the fees are unconstitutional because they infringe upon workers’ free-speech rights. Across the country, about two dozen states have laws that permit unions to require fees.
The decision could hinder the role of public-sector unions in elections. Organized labor has typically backed Democratic candidates and progressive policies for workers and battled measures such as merit pay for teachers and private-school vouchers.
Public-sector unions had been preparing for the ruling at least since the conservative-leaning high court decided in September to take the case. Before Neil Gorsuch was confirmed, the court had deadlocked on a similar case, with the four conservative justices ruling against unions.
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The case attracted attention from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose efforts to expand school choice have put her at odds with teacher unions, which she has called “defenders of the status quo.” She has been critical of teacher movements — backed by unions — that swept several states this year, when teachers shut down schools to draw attention to their paltry pay and deficient school funding. And she has battled the union representing employees in her department, with union leaders accusing the department of steamrolling the collective-bargaining process. She was in the audience at the Supreme Court when the case was argued in February.
The National Education Association — the nation’s biggest union, with more than 3 million teachers — said it fears losing about 200,000 members this year and possibly 100,000 more next year. It, along with other public-sector unions, has worked to aggressively recruit and retain members, sometimes by having them sign pledge cards and providing professional development for new teachers.
Lily Eskelsen García, the union’s president, said her union is preparing to cut about $28 million from its budget and about 40 people from its 400-person staff. That has led to in-house tensions: The unionized staff of NEA Today, the union’s newsletter, threatened to strike over stalled negotiations with the association.
On a call with reporters Wednesday, García railed against the ruling, calling it an “unmitigated attack on working families,” not a win for freedom of speech as proponents of the ruling have framed the case.
“Real freedom is when you can earn a living wage. It means you can provide for your family, you can take your kid to the doctor when he’s sick and retire with dignity. Those are all things the billionaires behind Janus have fought against for decades,” García said.
The plaintiff, an Illinois child support worker named Mark Janus, is backed by businessman Richard Uihlein, a wealthy GOP donor who helped dismantle unions in Wisconsin.
Ryan Yohn, an eighth-grade American history teacher in Westminster, California, said there are educators who believe it is unjust to be forced to pay into a system that supports political ideologies they do not back. Yohn sued the California Teachers Association last year to opt out of mandatory union membership.
“Mark Janus is not a billionaire. I’m not a billionaire … And we’re the ones who got these court cases going,” Yohn said. “This is about every single worker having the right to withdraw from the union and take their money with them.”
Yohn argued that Wednesday’s decision will have no impact on teacher unions’ ability to negotiate or rally their members. Other educators, however, worry that the decision could weaken the financial base of unions.
“Who will ensure that we have quality public education for our children? It’s the union,” Dan Greenberg, a high school teacher in Ohio, said on a call with reporters. “Our unions are bargaining for smaller class sizes, for continued training and more adequate resources for students.”
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said she is encouraged by the number of teachers who have affirmed their membership in recent months, with recommitment rates of up to 95 percent in some places. Out of 1.7 million members in that union, roughly 80,000 are nonmembers who pay fees. Weingarten could not project the financial impact of losing that population but hoped to have an estimate once the union finalizes its budget next month.
“We have prepared for this in the last few years by having reserves to accommodate this decision,” Weingarten said in an interview Wednesday. “We do not want to lose a step in the fight we must pursue … for working people in their workplaces and in the halls of Congress and their state houses.”
Without the ability to require employees to pay fees, public-sector unions across the country are expecting to absorb financial blows. That could weaken their ability to collectively bargain and represent employees in labor disputes — all activities that come with costs. They will now be legally required to represent workers who pay nothing for their services.
“They’re going to have a harder time having unions negotiate for workplace conditions on their behalf,” said Celine McNicholas, director of labor law and policy at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.
Nat Malkus, deputy director of education policy studies at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, anticipates that union membership could shrink by 20 percent, even 50 percent, in the coming years, especially now that public employees must “affirmatively consent to pay” before the union can charge a fee.
“The decision flips on its head what was default behavior to become a member of the union,” Malkus said. “Now, it takes action, and those defaults are now working against union membership.”
With the successful organizing unions did in anticipation of the Janus decision, there is a strong chance many may be able to offset some loss of members, said William Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College.
“They’ve been successful in getting people to join the union and once they join, they will pay membership dues,” he said. “This decision may spur a higher degree of activity in the workplace on issues involving both terms and conditions of employment.”
But experts said the impact of the decision will reach further. Unions, which collect donations from members for political activities, have typically backed Democrats, donating millions to candidates and offering volunteers. They have also backed measures to increase the minimum wage and to broaden worker protections.
Conservatives have long criticized unions for largely backing Democrats and what they view as left-leaning policies, such as increasing the minimum wage. Lindsey M. Burke, director of education policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said that even though unions are required to separate political donations from fees collected for union activities, “money is fungible.”
In her view, that means teachers, regardless of their politics, might be indirectly supporting candidates with whom they disagree.
“The vast majority of the union political contributions go to Democrats, and we know that not all teachers are left-leaning,” Burke said. “There are a lot of conservative teachers out there … when you have unions contributing to MoveOn.org and Media Matters — organizations that are clearly not aligned with overall teacher sentiment — that can create a real tension.”
Experts look to Michigan and Wisconsin to show how curtailing the power of public-sector unions can shift political winds. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker, R, and a GOP-led statehouse in 2011 sought to solve the state’s budget crisis by undercutting public-sector unions, limiting their ability to collectively bargain and eliminating their ability to collect agency fees. Michigan enacted similar reforms in 2012.
Union membership in both states declined and so did their political clout, said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center.
“It undermined the unions’ ability to engage in politics with the diminished staff, with diminished resources. It had a very significant impact in the political direction,” Wong said. Both states, which had previously backed President Barack Obama, helped deliver victory to President Donald Trump. Wong points squarely at those states’ efforts to undercut unions.
Teacher unions have campaigned against school-choice policies, private school vouchers and efforts to expand charter schools. The California Teachers Association donated $1 million to the gubernatorial campaign of Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, D, and endorsed him in the primary after he said he did not want to increase charter schools in the state. Newsom garnered the most votes in the primary. Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, D, who received millions of dollars in donations from charter school supporters, finished a distant third in the primary.
Burke, who favors efforts to give parents more choices in how their children are educated, had cheered the possibility of unions losing in the high-court case, saying it could open the door to shifting school-choice policy.
“It may mean they have fewer dollars that go to blocking long overdue reforms that are needed for students and teachers,” Burke said.