Search form

Supreme Court Ruling Will Change Union Landscape…But for the Better?

If you hadn’t caught it, on June 27th, 2018, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the First Amendment rights of public employees to “opt out” of paying union fees. This ruling certainly has the potential to be devastating for the funding and representative power of our local unions, but what does it ultimately mean for the teacher in the field?

Current Trends in Union Participation

Although overall union membership rates have risen slightly across the United States over the past couple of years, the field of education is currently seeing a slight decline in participation. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show a decrease of two percentage points in our teaching force. In particular, in 2016, 46.9% of our middle and elementary school teachers were union members, while 44.9% remained by 2017. Secondary school teacher participation rates moved from 52.3% to 50.2%. Special education teachers had 53.9% union representation, which is now down to 51%.

Surely these are not alarming numbers. However, with the mandate being ruled unconstitutional, union organizers are worried these trends are about to snowball.

Having a Voice in the Public System

With any decline in union participation, the obvious issue for workers is the loss of a unified voice. In larger school districts especially, this can be terrifying. When administrators are making tough calls on issues that impact their teachers—>without hearing the voice of those teachers—confidence in leadership and overall job satisfaction are sure to tank. It’s a “lose-lose” for everyone involved.

In smaller systems, educators sometimes feel like they have more access to the administrative staff that influence their day-today life at school. When you know you can walk directly into your principal’s office to discuss contracts or share concerns with your local Board of Education without fear of reprimand, you’re less likely to see the value in your union.

From budgets to curriculum plans, decisions need to be made every day that impact our classrooms. Unfortunately, it is all-too-easy to give up a monthly payment that seems excessive—until you suddenly need it.

The Challenges of Representation

One of the major critiques of the way many of our unions are run is whether or not the “voice” being shared is truly unified. What happens when your “majority rules” union is consistently taking political and pedagogical stances you don’t agree with? Do the benefits of that “unified voice” outweigh the loss of your individual needs? A commonly-held concern about any forward-moving union is that they can sometimes push any dissent to the margins in pursuit of timely action.

On this note, many are hoping that this ruling will encourage union leaders to create more effective methods of representation. It makes sense that a teacher might decline paying dues into an institution that does not reflect their values. Although consensus is always incredibly difficult with large bodies, unions will have to figure out new ways to make the marginalized voices in their community of practitioners heard, or risk lower participation numbers. Checks and balances to make sure unions are truly listening and responding to the needs of their constituents might be just what some communities are looking for.

On the other hand, some worry that the concessions made to reach out to outlier voices will only delay making real effective change in our districts. Although consensus on issues impacting teacher life would be fantastic, it is also somewhat unlikely. Worries that weeks of endless meetings circling issues that ultimately yield compromises that everyone is disappointed with would essentially render unions ineffective.

Either way, due to the ruling, union organizers this coming fall will have to figure out how to keep attracting new members. If participation is low, it’ll be difficult for reps to claim that they are representing a unified teaching force.

Should Non-Members Still Be Represented?

Perhaps the toughest question brought to light by this ruling is whether or not workers are opting to give up their voice within the community when they do decline union dues. Should non-due-paying staff still be represented in negotiations?

On one hand, polling and hearing the concerns of an entire teaching staff is clearly optimal for message strength. Any union that wishes to be taken seriously in deliberation with their district should have a majority staff behind them.

And yet, what, then, are the perks of paying into a membership? If your system actively reaches out to non-members, the representation comes without a price tag. If your system ignores the needs of non-members, it will likely feel non-representative, losing all credibility and ultimately defeating the purpose of a “union”.

How will our unions approach these new challenges to their livelihood? Only time will tell. You can be sure many will be spending the summer in preparation for a bumpy fall.

If you’d like to read a veteran teacher’s personal reflection on his transition from “anti-” to “pro-union” sentiments, feel free to check out this piece.

Written by Keith Lambert, Education World Associate Contributing Editor

Lambert is an English / Language Arts teacher in Connecticut.