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7 Things to Know About the Supreme Court Decision That Just Slammed Teachers' Unions


The U.S. Supreme Court just dealt teachers' unions a heavy blow with a decision in the Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31 case. Here's what you need to know: 

1. The justices ruled to prohibit unions from charging nonmembers "agency" or "fair share" fees. Up until today, teachers' unions and other public-employee unions charged fees to employees who chose not to join the union but were still represented in collective bargaining. The union's argument for the fees was that nonmembers are still benefitting from collective bargaining, so they should have to pay something. The justices ruled that forcing employees to pay fees to a union they don't support is a violation of their First Amendment rights.

2. The justices also ruled that unions cannot deduct fees from employees' paychecks without their express consent. This part of the decision goes beyond what most court watchers were expecting, and it deepens the blow to unions. In some states, teachers have just a limited window of time in which they can tell their union they want to drop their membership. That rule would have been challenged in court had the Janus decision not addressed it. But now, teachers will have to affirmatively opt into paying dues to the union. 

3. The ruling was 5-4. Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote the majority opinion. He was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Neil M. Gorsuch. Justice Elena Kagan wrote the dissent and was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor. 

4.  Just about half the country will be affected by the Supreme Court decision. Here are the 22 states that allow unions to charge agency fees to nonmembers: 

5. Teachers' unions are predicting sizeable membership losses. The National Education Association has projected a two-year loss of 307,000 members, which led officials to propose a $50 million budget cut (a 13 percent reduction from the current budget.) The American Federation of Teachers has declined to release its projections, but President Randi Weingarten has said it will be a "bumpy ride" for unions—but "not an existential threat" thanks to planning. 

It's worth noting that the percentage of public school teachers participating in unions has been declining steadily over the last two decades

6. Unions will be taking their fight to the state legislatures. Already, Democratic lawmakers in about a half-dozen states have introduced or passed legislation that seeks to protect unions from the Supreme Court decision. For example, several states have enacted laws that require schools to allow teachers' unions to meet with new teachers, so labor representatives can pitch the unions' services. Other states, like New York, have specified what services unions are obligated to provide (or not provide) to nonmembers. 

Now that the Supreme Court decision is out, we can expect more union-friendly bills to be proposed. 

7. This ruling could make unions more responsive to their members. At least one analysis showed that when state unions lose the right to collect agency fees, representatives tend to do more outreach to teachers to convince them to join. Katharine Strunk, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University, said unions might now shift their policy priorities to better reflect what their members want. 

Teachers' unions have been working for the past year to engage their members and urge them to recommit. In an interview, California Teachers Association President Eric Heins said he plans to step up the union's efforts to reach out to nonmembers and connect with their values in the wake of the Janus ruling. "When you talk about values, ... that really transcends political lines and political ideology," he said.

Heins added that CTA will try to fight against what he expects to be an organized campaign to convince members to drop out of the union."Our work is very relational, it's all about our relationships [with members]," he said. 

Check out our longer story on the ruling as well as all of Education Week's coverage leading up to the Janus decision. And stand by for continued updates as more analysis and reactions roll in.

Image: At the lectern, William L. Messenger, a lawyer representing the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, makes his case earlier this year before the U.S. Supreme Court in a dispute over the collection of fees from nonunion members. —Illustration by Art Lien

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