The Supreme Court appears likely to deny unions the right to compel the payment of monthly dues in the case of Friedrichs vs. the California Teachers Association, which came before the court earlier this week. While the conventional wisdom holds that an adverse ruling could weaken unions, it could also provide the impetus unions—and in particular teachers unions—need to be more relevant in the new century.
First of all, it’s not at all clear how many members the unions will actually lose if the Supreme Court prohibits “fair share” fees, which some 20 states allow unions to charge non-union members who benefit from collective bargaining agreements. Today, in states that recognize a duty to bargain but prohibit “fair share” fees, two-thirds of teachers pay anyway and union membership in Michigan, which recently became a right-to-work state, dropped by just 2 percent.
What is clear is that a ruling in support of the lead plaintiff, Rebecca Friedrichs, means unions will have to work much harder for members. If teachers unions take the opportunity to professionalize the field rather than continue to service members like line workers in an education factory, they could end up stronger in the long run.
For example, maybe more experienced teachers who are understandably worried about their pensions will have to contend with younger teachers who might not want to spend 20 years in the field before collecting retirement benefits. Maybe some teachers would prefer a 401(k) or even higher salaries early in their careers instead of bigger retirement benefits on the back end.
Maybe, instead of acquiescing to third-rate teacher prep programs, the unions will take the lead in helping reform schools of education. In doing so, they could create a natural pipeline into their unions. Maybe, they will rethink tenure and seniority laws so that entry into the profession is harder and advancement is tied to some measure of effectiveness.
Maybe, unions will move more quickly to create career ladders and teacher leadership opportunities instead of paying lip-service to these ideas while perpetuating an industrial union model that treats most teachers the same.
Maybe, unions won’t be as reflexively opposed to differential pay as they are today and will develop compensation models that recognize that not all teaching jobs are the same. The fact is, some students require more work, some communities are more challenging and some subjects require more training. If we don’t acknowledge these differences and pay teachers accordingly, there is no incentive for good ones to take on these added burdens.
Maybe, unions will use political endorsements more judiciously than they do today and recognize that their members are more politically diverse than they care to admit. As a lifelong Democrat, I am glad unions generally endorse candidates in my party but about 40 percent of union households voted Republican in the last two national elections. They certainly have reason to gripe.
Maybe, unions will also be more responsive to their members who are more concerned with tax issues than salary issues or with class size over compensation. In a recent editorial, one of the plaintiffs in Friedrichs explicitly endorsed lower salaries in exchange for smaller classes and fewer layoffs, against the will of his union.
Maybe, unions will promote more teacher autonomy at the school level in exchange for less rigidity in district-level contracts. Rather than establishing work rules more suited to a factory than a school, they could help foster working conditions that support the professional learning communities many teachers yearn for—with time for collaboration, preparation and peer interaction.
Finally, maybe the teachers unions will move more quickly to develop robust evaluation policies they administer and control and set meaningful standards for the profession. That way administrators and policymakers don’t have to hold them accountable because they are doing it themselves.
I fully understand that many teachers do not support some or even any of these policies and I respect their right to hold those views. But many other teachers are open to these ideas and research shows that students benefit from better-prepared teachers and a culture of real accountability. Unions, however, mostly ignore their voices and encourage a small, activist, anti-reform wing to control the dialogue.
I support collective bargaining and I support unions, especially in this age of income inequality, to create upward pressure on wages and buttress the middle class. But when teachers unions ceaselessly block needed change in the field of education, they undermine confidence in traditional public schools.
Today, the parents of nearly 10 million children—more than 1 in 6—are choosing home-schooling, private schools or public charter schools for their kids. Interestingly, teachers are more likely than the general public to choose private schools. These parents and teachers are sending a clear message that today’s public schools are not good enough for their own children.
Meanwhile, about two dozen states now allow public dollars to pay for private education and politicians all across America pay no real political consequence for underfunding public education. In the not too distant future, America could hit a tipping point where support for traditional public education dissolves.
Regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision in Friedrichs, teachers unions have an opportunity to rebuild and elevate the teaching profession and renew public confidence in public education. Let’s hope they seize the moment. Like it or not, they may have to.