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 nation’s biggest union is the National Education Association, which represents more than 3 million teachers.
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.
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 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.
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“Obviously, we are preparing for the worst,” Lily Eskelsen García, the union’s president, said in advance of the decision. “We know that this has nothing to do with the fee payers. This is all about taking a machete to our membership.”
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.
García 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.
Without the ability to require employees to pay fees, public-sector unions across the country are expecting to absorb financial hits. 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.
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 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.
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“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, as 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.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the decision would not hinder the nascent teacher movements that led to walkouts in a half-dozen states. Weingarten said that weakening unions representing teachers could mean more educators resort to disruptive tactics - such as walkouts - to deliver their message.
“These walkouts are sending a signal to these judges that whether you strike down our legal rights or not, you cannot strike down our voice,” Weingarten said.
Teachers 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 and endorsed him in the Democratic 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, 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.
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“It may mean they have fewer dollars that go to blocking long overdue reforms that are needed for students and teachers,” Burke said.