One of the most anticipated United States Supreme Court cases in many years for the education world has been Janus v. AFSCME, in which public-sector employee Mark Janus objected to being required to pay a representation fee (also called agency or fair share fees) to the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees as a condition of employment. Not surprisingly, public-sector unions strongly supported AFSCME and many conservatives and libertarians supported Janus.
The United States Supreme Court ruled today in a 5-4 decision in favor of Janus, meaning that public employees no longer have to pay anything to a union. (Previously, employees could get a refund of any expenditures not related to collective bargaining, but this refund was criticized by some as being only a portion of political spending.) Not surprisingly, the education Twittersphere (which tends to lean to the left politically) was immediately up in arms about the decision as being devastating to public-sector unions and education in general. But I take a different view in this post, explaining why the implications of Janus are likely to be fairly small for teachers even if unions take a major financial hit.
The first reason the decision’s impacts are more limited is that 28 states already have right-to-work laws that ban public employees from having to join a union as a condition of employment. Arizona, Kentucky, and Oklahoma are three of these states—and all three saw massive K-12 teacher protests this spring for higher salaries (and with a fair amount of success). K-12 teachers are viewed fairly sympathetically by the general public—and far more so than higher education faculty. As I wrote earlier this year, the success of K-12 teachers in getting raises in right-to-work states may adversely affect higher education funding. Clearly, not being required to join a union does not mean that teachers cannot mobilize for higher salaries, and weaker unions may actually help the efforts gain support from conservative legislators.
I also expect blue states to do everything they can to protect both K-12 and higher education faculty members post-Janus. Even though just seven states have unified Democratic control, Democrats have at least partial control in another 17 states. Teachers’ unions are likely to remain fairly powerful in these states even with diminished membership, and will be particularly powerful in local elections (where K-12 salaries are often determined). If anything, the most liberal states may do more to help teachers than in a world without Janus.
Since nearly every state either already has right-to-work or at least partial Democratic control, I don’t expect to see big changes to K-12 or higher education salaries in response to Janus. Teachers’ unions will have to do a fair amount of belt-tightening to survive and work diligently to keep members (especially since joining a union looks to be opt-in instead of opt-out). But a union that is leaner and solely focused on compensation issues could end up being a very effective political player, particularly at the local level.