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A Potential Supreme Court Ruling Could Mean Loss in Membership and Funds for Teachers' Unions

A Supreme Court ruling could leave teachers' unions with the burden of operating and financing with lost fees and lost members. 

With Neil Gorsuch joining the U.S. Supreme Court as a replacement for the late Justice Antonin Scalia, conservative groups are moving in to deal a financial blow to labor unions.

When Scalia died unexpectedly, justices were deadlocked last year 4-4 over a First Amendment clash in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association that challenged a previous decision four decades old.

Conservative groups argued the Abood v. Detroit Board of Education decision violated the free speech rights of workers who chose not to join by collecting an “agency fee” to cover collective bargaining costs.

Justice Scalia likely would have broken the tie and ruled against the unions. The Supreme Court won’t consider taking up the case until at least September.

As union memberships hit new lows in the U.S. last year, sinking to only 10.7 percent of the workforce, a new case,  Janus v. AFSCME has come to light.

The new appeal centers around Mark Janus, a state employee making the same argument as Friedrichs, that Illinois law violates his free speech rights by requiring him to pay fees subsidizing a union he doesn’t support. In March, a federal appeals court in Chicago rejected his claim, ruling the fees were constitutional under the 1977 Abood case.

Under law, teachers can choose between paying 100 percent of union dues or around 70 percent. The 30 percent difference is what unions estimate they spend on activities not related to collective bargaining -- for example, political campaigns. Because the less expensive fee option means teachers forfeit membership privileges like liability insurance coverage and a vote on contract ratification, some teachers would rather just pay the full amount.

Though Gorsuch has not expressed views on the issue of fair share union fees, he’s seen as Scalia’s equally conservative successor and could be the vote that deals a fiscal blow to unions.

If the Supreme Court does hear the Janus case it probably wouldn’t happen until next year, but could mean jarring change for teachers' unions.

In right-to-work states where mandatory fees don’t exist, teachers simply choose between paying dues in full or nothing at all. Those teachers who are reluctant about whether to pay partial or full dues in states like Illinois or Massachusetts, may opt to leave a teachers' union altogether following an unfavorable union ruling.

Some teachers' unions have already begun adjusting their budgets for what a Janus decision could mean.

Joe Nuñez, executive director of the California Teachers Association recently warned of membership losses as high as 30 percent to 40 percent, and New York City’s United Federation of Teachers is estimating a membership loss of 20 percent.

A similar warning has come from the National Education Association, and modified its proposed budget next year to include an estimated loss of 20,000 full-time equivalent members.


Article by Joel Stice, Education World Contributor

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