This morning, the SCOTUS ruled–by a 5-4 vote–that Illinois home health care workers cannot be forced to pay dues to a union to which they don’t want to belong. The court’s conservative majority, led by Justice Alito (who makes no secret of his anti-union sentiments), declared that because the home health care workers are not “full-fledged public employees,” they do not have to abide by laws that require state employees to contribute financially to a union.
While today’s decision is certainly a blow to organized labor, many union leaders and members are relieved that for the time being, the 1977 Abood decision that grants states the right to require workers to pay union dues remains intact. But given that unions are under attack in all parts of the country (there’s even a group of CA teachers who are suing to stay out of their union), it’s very likely that the Supreme Court will consider the Abood decision again in the near future. Alito calls Abood itself “questionable” and “anomalous” in his opinion on Harris v. Quinn, but Justice Kagan, who wrote the dissent, sharply disagrees. And if Abood is ultimately overturned in another ruling, the United States would essentially be a right-to-work country.
Anyone unfamiliar with “right to work”–a ridiculous misnomer, I should note, so don’t be fooled for a second by this title–should read up on why it’s “wrong for everyone.” (The fact that right-to-work is supported by the likes of the Koch brothers should be red flag number one.) Consider this report from the Economic Policy Institute, which concludes, among other things, the following:
Right-to-work laws lower wages—for both union and nonunion workers alike—by an average of $1,500 per year, after accounting for the cost of living in each state.
Right-to-work laws also decrease the likelihood that employees get either health insurance or pensions through their jobs—again, for both union and nonunion workers.
By cutting wages, right-to-work laws threaten to undermine job growth by reducing the discretionary income people have to spend in the local retail, real estate, construction, and service industries.
Essentially, right-to-work is union busting. Plain and simple. Right now, there are 24 right-to-work states in the country.
So given the scope of the Harris decision (which, indeed, is much narrower than it could have been), now’s as good a time as any to revisit the virtues of organized labor and the reasons it’s in workers’ best interests to belong to a union. It’s certainly true that there’s great variation across the country in terms of union strength, effectiveness, and leadership, but all public workers should use Harris v. Quinn as an opportunity to renew our country’s interest in promoting strong unions, to which so many workers owe so much–because in doing so, we will strengthen our shrinking middle class and improve the quality of services that virtually all Americans depend on.
Why do we even need a push for stronger unions in the first place? Well, first and foremost, people have long forgotten the virtues of organized labor–and the benefits most workers enjoy that were fought for and earned by unions. Minimum wage? weekends? sick leave? workers’ comp? child labor laws? etc. etc. etc.? Meh. Now, public workers who want that stuff are lazy and greedy. (But private-sector people who get such benefits deserve them, dammit!)
But another concern, and one I’m certain is shared by union leaders everywhere, is that too few people understand the many and diverse ways in which union membership benefits them. On the national level, for example, many teachers are unhappy with what they perceive to be complacency–and compromise with the forces working against public education–on the part of union leadership. Many educators have fundamental problems with the Common Core State Standards, an initiative that both the NEA and AFT continue to endorse, and that’s enough to tempt some union members to jump ship. More locally, teachers who don’t require immediate union representation (that is, they don’t “get in trouble” at work and don’t understand the workings of local organizing) can be apathetic to or even ignorant of what the union’s larger and more fundamental role is. (I’ve heard, over the course of my career, too many teachers who were unhappy with the results of just one particular bargaining agreement say, “I don’t even want to pay union dues anymore.”)
These kinds of statements are so incredibly shortsighted, and they reveal one thing: unions need to aggressively and consistently remind members, who are often too overwhelmed by and preoccupied with the ever-increasing demands of their teaching positions, of what their membership dues get them. This happens in a broad sense all the time, since an association’s daily workings center around advocating for its members and the children they serve, but more work needs to be done at the local level to engage and involve members. I get the sense that outside of contract negotiations and disputes with administrators and local boards of education, some union members don’t understand or appreciate the governance structure, function, or activities of their associations. (I suspect that this is the case in other types of unions, too.)
I’m a proud member of the New Jersey Education Association, one of the strongest and best-organized teachers’ unions in the country. I realize that not all educators are fortunate enough to be represented by such a powerful and influential organization (NJ students consistently perform among the top in the nation, and I attribute much of that to our union’s advocacy for teachers, students, and public education in general), but that’s what makes it even more important that workers all over the country act in their own interests and organize in solidarity.
So for anyone who has trouble seeing beyond the work unions do at the local level, here’s a much-abridged overview of what strong teachers’ unions do for their members–beyond the stuff we see in our buildings every day. (I’m obviously using NJEA as an example because that’s the organization to which I belong.) Here goes:
- They promote and showcase student and teacher achievement–especially during a time when our governor labels children living in poverty in New Jersey as “failures.” (The Communications Division is responsible for publications, PR, and media relations; it even produces a weekly television program to highlight student/teacher accomplishments.)
- They provide extensive (and I do mean extensive) professional development opportunities to help teachers serve their students the best they can.
- They made sure that tenure reforms were fair, while still ensuring that ineffective teachers can be dismissed more efficiently. (See the proposed changes to tenure that didn’t make it to the final bill here because of NJEA’s interventions and influence.)
- They’re working hard to monitor and ensure that the teacher evaluation models (Danielson, Stronge, McRel) districts have implemented are are being applied fairly and consistently.
- The Government Relations Division tracks and influences legislation concerning public schools, teachers, funding decisions, special education law, coordinates member testimony before legislators, etc. Staff from all divisions, in concert with other unions from across the state, are actively and aggressively fighting Chris Christie’s illegal pension abuses.
- They consistently seek to improve working conditions (yes, we need tenure, which is under attack now), which directly affect students’ learning conditions. (Ever read accounts of teaching conditions/salaries/student learning environments in Right-to-Work states? Explains why highly-unionized states boast better student academic achievement.)
- NJEA’s UniServ network operates out of 22 regional offices, and provides services–through field reps and consultants–to members in many different capacities.
- NJEA’s elected leaders, who are active educators, advocate on behalf of the Association’s members. The Association also has countless committees that are made up of members who oversee the workings of the union.
- They devote a great deal of effort to forming and fostering community relationships, because community involvement is integral to the success of any school system.
If you want more specific information on any of this, or to see all the stuff I couldn’t fit onto this list, visit the NJEA website.
Members of unions from across the country: does your union do these things–and do them well?
If so, great. But if not, then do something about it. (Yes, YOU!)
It’s becoming increasingly evident that lots of teachers’ union members across America–and in direct response to the corporate takeover of our public school system that’s driven by non-educators–are finding their voices and fighting for their rights and the rights of the students they serve. In recent years, we’ve seen the emergence of more progressive, aggressive, outspoken union leaders (special shout-out to Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who’s considering a mayoral run against reformy public-school-destroyer Rahm Emanuel)–and I have no doubt that today’s SCOTUS ruling will spark an even greater interest in strengthening unions and encouraging educators to demand the conditions they know are best for themselves and the students and communities they serve.
So in the face of the Harris v. Quinn decision: organize. No defeatist attitudes. Advocate. Be loud. Show your community, and anyone else who will listen, that the work you do is valuable–and that your interests are also the interests of your students.
If you don’t agree with your union leadership: tell them. Explain why. Begin a dialogue. Suggest solutions. And vote for union leaders who represent what you believe is right, because they’re the ones who will be tasked with defending the Abood decision when its constitutionality comes into question again. (And it will.)
Otherwise, don’t complain: because abandoning the labor movement upon which so much of our country was built–and from which so many Americans benefit every day–is not the answer.
And above all else, remember this: even if the Supreme Court of the United States rules against organized labor, YOU still have the power to be a proud union member. No one, not even the SCOTUS, can take that away from you.