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.

 

How state governments touch on nearly every aspect of public policy

This week in North Philly Notes, Michelle Atherton, co-editor of Pennsylvania Politics and Policywrites about what states do and how much power they have within modern politics and policy.

In the midst of the modern 24/7 news cycle, and the focus on the tweet of the moment from our president, it’s easy to forget that politics in our federal system runs much deeper than the national level. Americans in general are woefully unaware of what states do and how much power they have within modern politics and policy. Statewide and local elections have much lower voter turnout than presidential years, as if the composition of state legislatures and governors’ offices barely matters compared to who occupies the White House. Many would argue these governing bodies matter even more to the lives of the average citizen, as state governments touch nearly every aspect of public policy.

Pennsylvania Politics and Policy_smRepublicans in control in Washington, DC did not manage to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), but it was originally up to the states to create their own healthcare exchanges, and whether to expand Medicaid. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed in 2017 lowered federal taxes for most individuals—and especially corporations—but it also capped the state and local tax (SALT) deduction at $10,000, greatly effecting the calculus of state and local governments’ approaches to maintaining revenues.

Pennsylvania, for example, is one of the states most highly dependent upon property taxes for the support of public schools, collected locally, as opposed to relying on state taxes. Will the wealthy Philadelphia suburbs revolt come November’s general election as higher income households lose thousands of dollars in tax deductions? Perhaps the results will strengthen the case among many voters for doing away with the property tax altogether as a source of funding for public schools in the Commonwealth.

This issue and many others are explored in the first publication of Pennsylvania Politics and Policy: A Commonwealth Reader. Further topics include:

  • What would it mean for Pennsylvania to adopt direct democracy such as the citizen-initiated referendum and recall like other states? Would politicians be more responsive and less prone to corruption?
  • Why doesn’t the state of Pennsylvania place a severance tax on natural gas production? Every other state does. Alaskans each receive a dividend from fossil fuel extraction, yet Pennsylvania’s legislature refuses to move the issue forward even in the face of severe budget woes.
  • Why doesn’t the state fund education based on the number of students in schools? Every other state in the nation bases funding on real student counts. In Pennsylvania, the politics of party and leadership control in the legislature dictates funding.
  • Why does Pennsylvania not tax any form of retirement income, one of just a handful of states to do so? And, what does the rapid aging of the state mean for the bottom line of funding services both for the elderly and younger individuals and families?
  • Why did it take so long to be able to buy wine and beer at the local supermarket? Pennsylvania took a unique approach to policing vice.

Another election for the governor, the entire House, and half the Senate of Pennsylvania is just around the corner. Here’s hoping Pennsylvanians find their way to the polling place to vote in proportion to the gravity of the election’s policy implications.

 

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