Policymakers, journalists, analysts, and—to be sure—union leaders and members are eagerly, and perhaps nervously, awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME. The Supreme Court will likely release their decision in the coming weeks, and that decision will have long-standing effects on public sector unions, including teachers’ unions, and their membership and revenue.
The court’s decision will determine whether unions can continue to charge agency fees—fees paid by non-members to cover the costs of collective bargaining. Analysts are busily speculating on the potential outcomes of the case and how they may affect teachers unions. But what’s missing from much of the conversation is a full understanding of the context of the case—including the long history of teachers unions and their status today.
Who do teachers’ unions represent?
The nation’s two largest teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) both represent a variety of education professionals, including K-12 classroom teachers, early childhood educators and higher education faculty and staff members.
While the NEA only represents education-related professionals, the AFT represents other professions including nurses and healthcare workers. Data on the types of members are sparse, but documents the AFT and NEA file with the U.S. Department of Labor indicate that only about 42 percent of the 1.7 million workers the AFT represents are full-time members. The rest are retirees, part-time members and agency fee payers. In the NEA, 69 percent of the 3.1 million workers are active professionals, which includes all certificated staff members such as classroom teachers and school psychologists.
Though still a relatively small proportion of the employees represented by the AFT and NEA, the number of agency fee payers has risen about 46 percent (from 124,000 to 182,000) over the last decade. Today, the AFT represents approximately 94,000 agency fee payers and the NEA represents approximately 88,000 agency fee payers.
What do teachers’ unions do?
The AFT and NEA provide a variety of services to their members. They offer job-related training and professional development, access to additional insurance, legal and financial services and even access to deals for travel and entertainment.
The core functions of the AFT and the NEA, however, are political advocacy and collective bargaining.
Each union spends tens of millions of dollars each year on political activities and lobbying. As representatives of employees, local and state chapters of the AFT and NEA negotiate with employers on issues including salary and wages, working conditions and benefits through a process called collective bargaining.
What is the landscape of collective bargaining?
Early on, the unions collectively bargained on a relatively small set of issues such as wages, benefits, hours and working conditions. This led to a number of positive developments for teachers: increased salaries; better benefits; fewer non-education responsibilities, like shoveling snow or monitoring bathrooms; and the development of a uniform salary schedule.
Today, the scope of teachers’ unions collective bargaining varies by state. Legislation in seven states expressly prohibits collective bargaining. In the remaining 43 states and D.C., state law shapes the breadth of issues on which unions can collectively bargain.
In Wisconsin, for example, unions can bargain only on wages, insurance or fringe benefits and pension and retirement benefits. California law, on the other hand, permits teachers’ unions to bargain on 10 issues, including wages, class load and teacher evaluation processes.
How do teachers’ unions spend their money?
A quick scan of the Department of Labor’s LM-2 forms, which the national headquarters of the AFT and NEA file each year, reveals more than 1,000 people and organizations to which the AFT and NEA give money.
The Department of Labor requires the unions to categorize all expenditures into categories such as Representational Activities (disbursements to entities and individuals associated with collective bargaining negotiation and enforcement); Contributions, Gifts and Grants (gifts to charitable organizations, contributions to scholarship funds and, in the case of the NEA, disbursements to its state and local affiliates); and Political Activities and Lobbying (funding for entities and individuals associated with politics and lobbying).
In 2017 the AFT spent about $75 million, or 22 percent of its total disbursements on collective bargaining activities, while the NEA spent $44 million, or 11 percent of its total disbursements. About $40 million, or 12 percent, of the AFT’s disbursements went to political activities and lobbying, and $53 million or 14 percent for the NEA.
As one might expect, much of the AFT and NEA’s funds help support their own state and local affiliates. Significant dollars go to support other education-related organizations such as the Healthy Schools Campaign or education-related political initiatives like Citizens Who Support Maine’s Public Schools. They also give to organizations and causes that are adjacent to, or outside of, the education sector such as Planned Parenthood, the BNAI Zion Foundation and Emily’s List.
Where might teachers’ unions be in the future, post-Janus?
There’s a lot of speculation on the potential impacts of the case on teachers’ unions. The most immediate impact, in the event that the court makes agency fees illegal, is that unions could lose revenue.
When members realize they can opt out of membership dues and agency fees, most analysts agree that unions will lose members. Losing members means losing dues, which means a drop in overall revenue.
Analysts expect this revenue decline to be especially pronounced in states where existing state law allows agency fees and requires collective bargaining. In these states, unions will have to continue collective bargaining on behalf of employees with fewer dollars, as non-members would no longer have to pay agency fees.
Unions may also lose membership, though estimates of what this decline in membership could look like vary significantly. On the conservative end, if trends continue along their current trajectory, unions could see a decline in membership of about 3 percent over the next five years. If membership drops off more quickly—following, for example, trends seen in Wisconsin after the passage of restrictive collective bargaining laws and right-to-work legislation—unions could lose upwards of 50 percent of their members over the next five years.
Whatever the Supreme Court decides, analyses will benefit from an objective fact base that summarizes where teachers’ unions have been and where they are today.