Thursday, June 28, 2018

Supreme Court Sticks It To the Union, Again

The increasingly conservative Supreme Court decided to side with the rich and moneyed in the so-called Janus ruling yesterday. The ruling seemed inevitable. In fact, I predicted this day would come in a post 4 years ago, SCOTUS Sticks It To The Union. Justice Samuel Alito has signaled in several rulings that he has been itching to overturn the earlier Supreme Court decision in Abood from 40 years ago that allowed public sector unions (like teacher unions) to collect agency fees from non-members who benefit from the unions collective bargaining activity. Alito just needed to wait for Senator Mitch McConnell to block the Obama nomination of Judge Merrick Garland and then steamroll the approval of Justice Neil Gorsuch and he had the five votes he needed (Roberts, Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch, Kennedy).

Alito sounded almost gleeful in his opinion. "We conclude that this arrangement violates the free speech rights of non-members by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern." In her dissent, read from the bench, Justice Elena Kagan would have none of it. "There is no sugar-coating today's opinion. The majority overthrows an opinion entrenched in the nation's law - and in its economic life - for over forty years... And it does so by weaponizing the first amendment, in a way that unleashes judges, now and in the future, to intervene in economic and regulatory policy."

The ruling will weaken public sector unions in general and teacher unions in particular. Unions are imperfect constructions, of course. They are also vital to the economic and physical health of working people. Teacher unions are vital not just to teachers and teacher families, but to student and student families as well.

I began my career in 1969 prior to unionization and collective bargaining. My pay was too low to support my family, so I worked evenings and weekends at my father's gas station and sold ice cream from a truck in the summer months. I taught 6 classes a day. I was allowed 2 preparation periods a week. My class size was as high as 40 students and averaged 33. My unair-conditioned room reached temperatures approaching 100 degrees on warm June and September days.

In 1970, Pennsylvania teachers won collective bargaining rights. Over the next ten years, thanks to the collective bargaining actions of my union, I saw my salary rise enough so that I did not have to work evenings and weekends at the gas station. My class sizes went down. I was allowed 5 preparation periods a week. An air-conditioner was installed in my classroom.

All this was good for me and my family, of course, but it was also good for my students. A living wage meant I could spend more time on lesson plans and wasn't tired all the time. Smaller classes meant more time for individual student attention. Air-conditioning meant a better learning environment for the students.

The union movement will now be in a battle for its existence. Already groups funded by wealthy conservative organizations are gearing up to help teachers opt out of their union (Philadelphia Inquirer, June 28, 2018 p. A15). Non-Members will reap all the benefits of the collective bargaining work the union does for free. Younger teachers, with lower salaries, may well make the hard choice to opt out of the union to save a few very needed bucks.

This, of course, is exactly what the moneyed 1% of Americans wants. Public sector unions will get smaller and poorer in the coming years. Weak unions mean lower wages. Weak unions mean lower taxes. Weak unions mean more money for the rich and less for the rest of us. The Supreme Court ruling is a boon to the wealthy and a further stake in the heart of public education.

There is, however, hope. Along with the steady drumbeat of anti-worker legislation and anti-labor court rulings coming out of Washington has come a new energy on the part of teachers to take collective action. We have seen this happening in non-union states like Arizona, Oklahoma, and North Carolina, but the attractiveness of collective action seems to be reflecting well on union activities as well. A recent Gallup poll found that more people have a positive view of unions than at any time since 2003. Unions in states like West Virginia, where teachers have had walkouts, report increases in union membership.

Union leaders are going to need to redouble efforts to truly serve their constituents, to make personal contact, to listen, to serve. While virtually every decision coming out of the power corridors has been anti-union, the moneyed classes may have over-played their hand. The true power still remains in the hands of the classroom teacher, because it is the classroom teacher who is responsible for the day-to-day functioning of the public schools where 85% of all children still attend. If those classroom teachers are willing to work together collectively through union action, they are a force that cannot be stopped by any legislation or wrong headed Supreme Court ruling.

By joining together, by working together, teachers can achieve reasonable working conditions, a livable salary, and a more equitable education for their students. If we do not join together, working conditions, salaries, and learning conditions will continue to deteriorate.

As for me, I will borrow from the singing of Pete Seeger: "You can't stop me, I'm sticking to the union. I'm sticking to the union till the day I die."

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