Teachers’ unions strike back

This week in North Philly Notes, Lesley Lavery, author of A Collective Pursuit, writes about teachers’ unions’ response to COVID, arguing that despite decades of legal and political effort, teachers’ collective efforts will save lives.

Teachers in Detroit just authorized the first potential “safety strike.” Three week ago, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union, told members that the union’s leadership would support “safety strikes” if health precautions are not met amid calls for schools to reopen as coronavirus cases surge. This declaration of support is striking, not least because it pushes longstanding legal boundaries.

Under current federal statutes, teachers must still report to work even if they believe that local officials have not sufficiently prioritized their health and safety, along with that of their students. The degradation of a teacher’s right to demand such basic and fundamental working conditions is the result of a decades-long effort by education reformers to isolate teachers from their unions—a movement that has praised the individual actions of educators while disparaging their collective calls for higher pay and better working conditions.

An assault on public sector unions began in earnest in 1979 with a unanimous Supreme Court ruling in Abood v. Detroit Federation of Teachers. Attempting to strike a delicate balance between government and individual interests, in Abood the court established a nearly 40 year precedent in teachers’ unions’ ability to collectively bargain by noting a distinction between the unions’ economic and political work.

Following the Abood ruling, teachers and other public employees could not be compelled to join unions so long as they paid the documented costs of contract administration and negotiation. Post-Abood, unions could capture a “fair-share” fee from all potential members but must refrain from spending agency fees on political activities. While in theory this appeased both individuals whose political interests ran counter to their unions’ and unions who might otherwise face a “collective action problem of nightmarish proportions,” in practice, the line between bargaining interests and political interests was difficult to discern, enforce or object to.

Collective_PursuitIn April 2013, after nearly four decades of relative labor peace, ten public school teachers in California, backed by the right-leaning Center for Individual Rights, took a straight shot at the Abood precedent. In Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, Rebecca Freidrichs and nine California colleagues argued that attempts to separate bargaining from unions’ political actions were moot because bargaining covered so many fundamentally political topics. Like Abood, Freidrichs eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. There, in 2016, the attack on unions stalled following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. But the reprieve was temporary. On June 27, 2018, a final, decisive blow arrived via Janus vs. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.  

By February 2018, eulogies for many local teachers’ unions had already been written. But mere months before Janus transformed all states to right-to-work states and those eulogies could be delivered, West Virginia teachers from every one of the state’s fifty-five counties walked out of their classrooms to demand higher wages and showcase their concern regarding a bill to lower teacher-certification standards. West Virginia educators’ activism inspired similar actions in Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee and Colorado. School bus drivers then walked off the job in Georgia.

By the end of the year, the AFSCME, Janus’ direct adversary, reported seven new dues-paying-members for each additional non-paying free-rider (a total increase of 22,000 newly organized workers). The AFT added 88,500 members. And though they expected dire defection rates, the National Education Association gained 13,935 members.

The Janus ruling meant to cut unions off at the knees, but as we watch the reopening debate play out right now, it is clear that “reformers’” wins weren’t enough to mollify teachers’ desire to be heard or sever the relationships they’ve been building with their communities. By declaring it too difficult to determine the line between teachers’ economic and political interests, the courts have inadvertently emboldened a generation of educators to take a stand in the debate of their life (pun intended).

Over the summer, as part of an ongoing 12-state 100+ district study on teachers’ unions’ response to COVID-19, my colleague Sara Dahill-Brown (Wake Forest University) and I have interviewed nearly 30 teachers’ union representatives from urban, rural and suburban districts about their involvement in COVID decision-making and planning. Though comfort with plans to “reopen” schools appears to vary based on population density, demographics, decision-making processes (or lack thereof), and the status of school infrastructure, across the country the teachers we’ve interviewed are increasingly desperate for local, state and federal officials to heed their calls to reopen safely.

I spoke with a union leader from a right-to-work district a few weeks ago. After years of struggling to recruit new union members, she and others we spoke with described rapid increases in unsolicited membership. Teachers are asking if they can go on strike. In many locales, they can’t. But they can protest. They can picket. They can stand outside six feet apart with a sign and a red t-shirt on. And they’ve been working diligently for the past several years to ensure that their communities understand teachers’ and students’ shared interests.

Now, with their lives on the line and individual social media posts, letters to administrators and elected officials, and op-eds in local newspapers unanswered, we’ve left teachers with little recourse. Despite decades of legal and political effort, COVID shows that “reformers” have failed to separate teachers from their unions. The union is the only voice that can aggregate and elevate educators’ anxieties and fears and force all of us to take stock of our duties and obligation to children and public education. We must get behind the nation’s teachers and face “COVID-19, a sagging economy and calls for social justice” head on, together.

 

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