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Union Membership Is at a High for the American Federation of Teachers. Will It Last?

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Pittsburgh, Penn.

Weeks after a Supreme Court blow, union leaders at the American Federation of Teachers convention said their membership is stronger than ever. Will it stay that way? 

AFT President Randi Weingarten announced at the convention that the nation's second-largest teachers' union now has 1.75 million members—its highest total ever. (That number encompasses more than K-12 teachers; at least 112,000 members are health-care workers, and the union also represents members in higher education.) This number was recorded in May, before the Supreme Court decision that made it easier for teachers to drop their union membership.

In an interview, Weingarten said the membership total included about 30,000 educators from Puerto Rico. Last August, a teachers' union on the island voted to join the AFT—marking the first time in more than a decade that AFT has had a presence there. However, this is a three-year trial affiliation, so those new members may not stay if AFT and the Puerto Rico union decide not to extend their partnership. 

The record membership high also comes at a time when unions are dealing with the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME, which prohibited the "agency" or "fair share" fees that unions had been charging to nonmembers in 22 states to cover the cost of collective bargaining. Now, teachers can decide between paying several hundred dollars each year to become a union member or paying nothing while still benefitting from the union's collective bargaining. Experts have predicted an exodus of teachers from the unions. (The 3 million-member National Education Association is predicting a loss of more than 340,000 members by 2020.) 

Weingarten said AFT had conservatively projected about an 8 percent membership loss due to the adverse ruling, which had been expected by union leaders. (A union spokesman said he could not specify a timeframe of the projected membership loss.) However, Weingarten said, "People are coming up and saying, 'I think you're wrong.'" 

That's because AFT affiliates have been working on "recommit campaigns" for the past year, which they hope will lessen the impact of the Janus decision. Two days before the Supreme Court's decision, AFT had tallied that 530,000 members have recommitted to the union, Weingarten said. 

In the recommit campaigns, union leaders have had conversations with members and agency fee-payers to urge them to stick with (or join) the union. In New York City, union members have knocked on the doors of thousands of teachers' homes to engage them in conversations about what the union can do for them. (For a glimpse at what those conversations can look like, check out this recent New York Times article.) 

However, some tactics used in the recommit campaigns may be vulnerable to legal challenges, the Intercept reported. For example, during its recommit campaign, the statewide Minnesota union asked teachers to fill out membership renewal forms that authorized the union to deduct dues from their paychecks. But in fine print on the form, there was a disclosure that said the authorization would be automatically renewed every year "irrespective of my membership in the union." To opt out, teachers will have to submit written notice to their school district and their local union during a seven-day window each year.

And in Los Angeles, the union asked members to sign a similar dues-authorization form that said, "This agreement shall be automatically renewed from year to year, unless I revoke it in writing during the window period, irrespective of my membership in UTLA." 

The Janus ruling said that unions cannot deduct fees from employees' paychecks without their express consent. The Intercept spoke to a law professor who said these types of forms are constitutional under the Janus decision, but they will still likely be challenged in court by anti-union groups.

At the AFT convention, several union leaders shared the results of their campaigns, with some saying they had a 100 percent recommit rate. Andrew Pallotta, the president of the New York State United Teachers, said only nine members have withdrawn from the union since the Supreme Court ruling last month.

"This Janus decision is going to be a good thing for us," he said. "All of this work we've been doing, all of this organizing, all of this relationship-building is because of this case. We're getting back to our roots."

And Nina Esposito-Visgitis, the president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, said the recommit campaigns have had an extra benefit to her affiliate: more political action committee contributions. She said when presented with a recommit card, people have tended to check off the box for donating to the PAC, which has more than doubled their average PAC contributions. 

Still, union leaders will have to contend against an onslaught of emails and ads from conservative groups, aimed at getting teachers to drop out of their union. In fact, on the last day of the AFT convention, the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank in Pennsylvania, tweeted at teachers using the #AFT2018 hashtag. "Teachers deserve a locally-focused organization that provides them a strong voice with their employer, not a national conglomerate that serves as a platform for party politics," the tweet read.

AFT attendees were outraged, with more than 50 responding on Twitter to say they aren't leaving their union:

Image of Weingarten at the convention, by Elliot Cramer/AFT. Courtesy of the American Federation of Teachers, all rights reserved.

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