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Are Teachers' Unions Finished?

If the plaintiffs in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association prevail before the U.S. Supreme Court, the decision will be the beginning of the end of teachers' unions in this country ("The Enemies of Choice," UnionWatch, Dec. 29, 2015). It would abolish agency fees, which are paid to the union by nonmembers in exchange for bargaining services.  Already there are ominous signs that teachers' unions are on the ropes.

Membership has plummeted to 50 percent nationwide from a high of almost 70 percent in 1993. Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana are now right-to-work states, with other states likely to follow. What's so disturbing is that younger teachers are largely behind the decline in membership. They take for granted the rights that veteran teachers fought for and won in past decades.  They naively believe that they're better off without unions.  

I look forward to seeing how they will react when they no longer have union protection.  I can assure them that their years of exemplary service will mean little when push comes to shove. I've written before about Brooklyn Technical High School in the New York City system.  Years ago, an abusive principal made life so miserable for even the best teachers that many of them put in for a transfer to less prestigious schools solely to avoid the harassment.

That's another reason why I support agency fees.  The unions correctly call them fair-share fees.  If they are abolished by the U.S. Supreme Court in Friedrichs, countless teachers would become freeloaders.  They would enjoy higher salaries and other benefits negotiated by unions without paying anything. That's not fair by any reasonable standard.

One of the ten teachers suing in Friedrichs argues that he shouldn't be required to pay union dues because he doesn't agree with his union's political activities ("Why I'm Fighting My Teachers Union," The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 4).  Fine.  Then I say he should  immediately return to his school district all the raises he received over his entire career, and refuse to accept in the future the increases in salary that his union negotiates. He can't have it both ways.  

I also don't accept the claim that the success of charter schools is largely the result of most of them being non-union.  Yet critics of teachers' unions assert just the opposite.  They say nothing about the role that parental involvement plays in the performance of charter schools, instead claiming that the absence of unions is the key.  I see no conflict between supporting parental choice and supporting teachers' unions.  

Notice that I've said nothing about the appeal of Vergara v. California, which seeks to overturn a Superior Court ruling that tenure rules unconstitutionally subject some students to bad teachers. I'll have more about that in a future column because I believe that both Friedrichs and Vergara will determine the ultimate destiny of teachers' unions. 

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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