By this time next year, everyone in the education world cheering the Supreme Court’s progressivism on health care and gay marriage may be singing a different – and sadder – tune. In its next term, the court will hear cases that could end affirmative action in higher education and curtail the power of teachers unions and other public employee unions. This latter case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, could dramatically weaken teachers unions and scramble the education landscape. The prospect of a defanging of the unions has many in education hopeful after the court agreed to take the case earlier this week. In practice, though, the ramifications of Friedrichs are not so straightforward.
The case turns on the question of whether public employees can be required to support union activities related to their work. Today, teachers and other public workers can elect to opt out of the political parts of union activities and only pay “agency fees” to support union activities benefiting them directly in the workplace. California teacher Rebecca Friedrichs and other California teachers argue that even agency fees compromise their First Amendment rights and want the court to overturn the 1977 Supreme Court case extending agency fees to public workers. In other words, yes, here’s an instance of teacher voice and activism the unions aren’t so excited about.
If the Supreme Court overturns agency fees, the bottom line is that the teachers unions – and other public employee unions – will have less money and consequently less power. Given the apathy in their ranks (teachers union elections have notoriously low turnout, for instance, and technically “none of the above” wins every contest), changing tastes among younger teachers and the professional rather than industrial nature of teachers’ work, a system of voluntary unionism represents an existential threat to teachers unions.
The National Education Association, which has more experience operating in right-to-work environments, is better positioned than the more urbanized American Federation of Teachers, but both will face real challenges if today’s rules are overturned.
Teachers union advocates and critics are loathe to admit it, but the effects of weaker teachers unions would be both good and bad for schools. On education policy, the unions are rarely helpful players these days – remember education is a field about teaching and learning where debate still rages about whether it makes sense to consider actual classroom performance when laying off teachers. When the interests of students and adults in the education system come into conflict, the unions are obligated to represent the adults, creating obvious problems on a host of operational and policy issues that are instrumental to running effective schools. Because the teachers unions can elect their management – via school boards – the normal balance of power in labor-management relations is often absent in the education context.
Yet the interests of adults and students are not always in conflict. Education funding, working conditions, adequate curriculum and professional development, teacher training and broader issues of health care, nutrition and social services are examples of issues where what’s good for teachers is also good for students.
In addition, on the whole, educational management isn’t going to win any awards for excellence. The reality is that every anecdote about outrageous union defenses of incompetent or dangerous teachers can be matched with crazy stories of ineffectual or ridiculous behavior by management. Underneath the heat of today’s education wars, there is not a lot of day-to-day policy attention focused on these issues. If the unions wither, something must fill these various roles for the education sector to thrive.
Meanwhile, many progressives have quietly tolerated the teachers’ unions intransigence on education reform because union money is so helpful on a range of social issues and causes. That marriage would be tested in a post-Friedrichs environment, creating challenges as well as opportunities for new political alliances.
My hunch? Union opponents look poised to catch the car they’ve been chasing for so long, so the education field should prepare for a post-Friedrichs world. Perhaps a no-agency fee situation will make the teachers unions leaner, stronger and more effective, but I wouldn’t bet on it. In Wisconsin, where the unions saw their power diminished legislatively by Gov. Scott Walker, the results have been mixed substantively and politically, but the unions hardly came out winners.
So like a dog that finally has its teeth on the bumper, teachers union proponents and opponents are about to find out reality is a lot more dynamic than it appeared at a distance.