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The Supreme Court’s Decision on Union Dues Will Have Profound Consequences

Commentary

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. reads the court’s 5-4 majority decision in Janus v AFSCME on June 27.

—Art Lien

Teachers already make less than comparable employees. Will Janus make things worse?

By

Celine McNicholas

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31. Overturning decades of precedent, the court held that union fees violate “the free speech rights of nonmembers by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern.”

There is no question that today’s opinion will have profound effects for the 17.3 million men and women who work in state and local government service jobs. Without the ability to collect fair-share fees for the services they provide to nonmembers, state and local government unions will see their funding diminished—and workers will see their collective bargaining power weakened, which may lead to greater instability in state and local government workforces.

However, the impact of the case goes even further. The effects will be felt throughout our communities. Critical public services will be affected, with the potential impact on education systems particularly concerning.

Workers in education make up more than half of all state and local government workers. There are more than 8.8 million men and women employed in state and local education—6.9 million of whom work in elementary and secondary schools. Fully half of these workers are represented by a union. Union and nonunion workers alike count on unions to raise their wages and ensure strong labor standards. Today’s decision will affect whether public education jobs are good jobs, with wages and benefits that enable the men and women who educate and care for our children to support their families.

Teachers already earn less than comparable workers—earning, on average, just 77 percent what other college graduates earn in weekly wages. In fact, in no state are teachers paid more than other college graduates on average. Coupled with the dramatic cuts many states have enacted to education investments, this pay inequity is proof that our nation’s education workforce needs access to tools like collective bargaining to protect the quality of their jobs and, with them, the public education system overall.

We’ve already seen the consequences of undercutting teachers’ right to collective bargaining. In 2011, Wisconsin’s Act 10 eliminated collective bargaining rights for most state and local government workers. After the law passed, teacher turnover accelerated, and teacher experience shrank; the percentage of teachers with less than five years of experience rose from 19.6 percent in the 2010-2011 school year to 24.1 percent in the 2015-2016 school year. Even more troubling, the percentage of teachers who left the profession increased dramatically. There is already a lack of qualified, experienced teachers in many parts of the country. Undercutting teachers’ ability to earn a decent living will not improve the situation.

The recent teachers’ strikes in states including Oklahoma and West Virginia provide important examples of the instability that could arise in the wake of Janus. Because the laws in these states don’t give teachers strong collective bargaining rights, strikes are one of the only ways that workers have to make their voices heard. But these strikes have been about more than teachers’ wages and benefits. States have enacted budget cutbacks that have led to students being forced to use outdated textbooks, learning in classrooms without air conditioning and heat, and even—in the case of some school districts in Oklahoma—attending school for only four days a week.

During the walkouts, teachers advocated for increased investment in schools and against measures to provide tax breaks to the wealthiest residents while slashing public education budgets. Many of the men and women who stand to be most immediately affected by today’s decision have been on the front lines of these battles advocating for states to value education and invest adequate resources in our nation’s schools.

The long-term impacts of the Janus decision will be examined in the coming months. But, what is already clear is that the decision will have a significant impact on our nation’s state and local government workforce and the critical services they provide our communities. The two groups that stand to be the most affected are our nation’s public school teachers and our children who depend on the public school systems.

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Celine McNicholas

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