The Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that non-union workers cannot be forced to pay agency/”fair share” fees to public sector unions. This may be devastating for teachers unions and other public-sector unions. In 2011 Wisconsin passed legislation doing away with agency fees for public sector unions, and membership in the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union, fell from nearly 100,000 to only 40,000 by 2015.
Teachers unions are the largest unions left in the US, and Janus is primarily aimed at us. Much of the motivation behind the backers funding the Janus case—and previous similar cases, such as Friedrichs in 2016—is because of our consistent support for and funding of the Democratic Party. But labor unions are not dictatorships. The leaders are elected, and the decisions made more or less reflect the desires of the membership. Those who oppose unions’ pro-Democratic Party politics, such as Janus, or the teachers in Friedrichs, are free to and should make that political fight within their unions. By contrast, Janus and Friedrichs are essentially saying that they should get to stick their co-workers with the cost of the union benefits they enjoy because they don’t agree with their fellow workers’ politics. Anti-union groups such as the Freedom Foundation have already sent mailings to teachers trying to seduce us away with the promise of saving money on our agency fees.
Janus has been portrayed in the media as a clash of special interests, and the general public has remained largely on the sidelines. This should not be—I’ve worked at both union and non-union schools, and I’ve seen how important teachers unions are to our children.
Teachers unions protect children because they protect a precious resource—teachers’ time. At nonunion schools teachers are often weighed down with taxing, unnecessary labor–yard duty before and after school, nutrition and lunch duty, chaperoning school functions and athletic events, and others. These duties reduce teachers’ ability to spend time helping students and preparing for classes.
Moreover, at nonunion schools teachers often must forgo their planning period to substitute for absent teachers. At union schools substitute teachers handle this responsibility.
At union schools, “preps” — the number of separate class subjects we must prepare for – are contractually limited. At nonunion schools excessive preps can be a large drain on teachers’ time.
In this era of school shootings, after each shooting people consider the shooter and ask, “How could we have missed the signs?” But teachers see things that parents and other adults in children’s lives don’t see. We’re the ones who watch students interacting with their peers, and we see their classroom academic struggles. If a student is in crisis, we often know before anyone else does. We can often help—if we have the time. Countless times at the nonunion jobs I’ve worked I was pulled away from troubled students who needed my help because I had to run off and do yard duty or other unnecessary chores.
Those arrayed against the teachers’ unions–educational reformers, anti-union politicians and conservative groups–often emphasize how critical teachers are. That is why, they claim, teachers’ seniority rights and the difficulty getting rid of failing teachers can harm our kids. But if teachers are so critical, why are we doing tasks that could easily and affordably be done by others? If I’m so important, why is my time so unimportant?
Overloading teachers with excessive demands on our time causes many teachers to leave the profession, and teacher turnover is a major problem. Moreover, teachers usually leave after they’ve gone through the rough initial adjustment period. They’re then replaced by new teachers who will make rookie mistakes and need time to develop.
Anti-union forces portray teachers unions’ political work, campaign contributions and contract demands as being about gaining money for ourselves. Yet most of our demands concern improving our students’ education: smaller class sizes; better student-to-counselor ratios; less student time wasted taking standardized tests; full staffing, including having nurses and librarians at each school; and many others. Teachers unions are also attempting to correct the pay inequities teachers face.
Parents need to understand that if Janus weakens teachers’ unions and accelerates schools’ descent into white-collar sweatshops for its teachers, it isn’t simply the teachers’ problem or the unions’ problem. It’s our children’s problem too.
Glenn Sacks teaches Social Studies at an LAUSD high school and has published columns in dozens of America’s largest newspapers. His website is www.glennsacks.com.