If I’ve learned anything from the three generations of public school teachers in my family, it’s that they have strong opinions about education policy — and that they entered teaching to promote student, not personal, enrichment. While teachers might disagree about education policy and about policymakers telling them how to do their jobs, most teachers are in the classroom because they care about helping all students live up to their potential.
An important case is looming in Washington, D.C., that might actually allow teachers to exercise their First Amendment rights and decide for themselves whether or not to join a union.
The case will come before the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, and its outcome is likely to be debated for years to come in teachers’ lounges throughout the country. Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association will decide whether teachers in 25 states, including Minnesota, have the option of not supporting a union as a condition of employment.
The case stems from a 1977 Supreme Court decision (Abood vs. Detroit Board of Education). The Abood case allows government workers, under the First Amendment, to decline to pay the political portion of dues that unions like Education Minnesota use to influence elections and public policy. Practically speaking, this means that teachers in Minnesota must still pay 75 percent of the dues (called an “agency fee”) collected by Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers union, as a condition of employment in a public school.
The argument for collecting this fee from every public school teacher in the state is that all teachers should pay for the collective bargaining conducted by the union on their behalf. The Friedrichs case asks the Supreme Court to overturn the Abood decision on the basis that collective bargaining in the public sector is inherently political — and that government unions regularly devote additional resources beyond the political portion of dues to enact their political agendas at state capitals all across the country.
This is especially true in states like Minnesota, where the teachers union is generally one of the biggest spenders each election cycle as well as during the legislative session. And, in years like 2014 when Education Minnesota has spent all of its collected “political” dues well before the election, the union has used a loophole in state law that has allowed it to borrow $930,000 to further influence election outcomes.
Furthermore, public-sector collective bargaining is inherently political, because the contracts negotiated between school districts and their employees make policy on workplace practices such as teacher tenure and class sizes. Minnesotans know there’s no shortage of controversy over those issues and many more in our public schools.
A good example of the heavy-handed and political nature of collective bargaining arises every two years when school districts must renegotiate teacher contracts. Under state law, one side to the negotiations can short-circuit the talks and request “mediation.” Mediation can be conducted in private — even though, in this case, 100 percent of the funds being “mediated” in private are public tax dollars. In 2014, Minneapolis Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson made a high-profile push for several critical education reforms in the 2014-16 contract and sought to keep the negotiations public — a request that union representatives rejected and continued to negotiate out of the watchful eye of the public and local news media.
Should the Friedrichs plaintiffs prevail, Minnesota teachers would still retain the option to join a union if they so choose, and unions would still be allowed to collectively bargain on behalf of their membership. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government recently released its ninth annual ‘Education Next’ opinion poll. A majority of teachers who had an opinion, 50 percent of those surveyed, favored ending mandatory agency fees.” Furthermore, a Gallup Poll in 2015 showed that 82 percent of the public agrees that “no American should be required to join any private organization, like a labor union, against his will.”
Shouldn’t every Minnesota public school teacher enjoy the same freedoms as the rest of us? The decision whether or not to join a union should belong to every public school teacher based on what is best for them — not what’s best for Education Minnesota. That’s what this Supreme Court case is all about.
Annette Meeks is CEO of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota.