Supreme Court precedent from back in 1977 in the case of Abood v. Detroit Board of Education says it is constitutional for public employees who do not join a union (if they have one for their job title.) to still have to pay what is called an agency fee payment to the union since they benefit the same as union members from a union's collective bargaining work. Agency fee payers (those who don't join the union) can petition the union to receive a portion of their dues back if they object to the political work the union is doing. Agency fee payers do not belong to the union officially and cannot vote in union elections.
Unions rightfully accuse people who don't want to pay any union dues of getting a free ride as they still benefit from the contracts the unions negotiate just as scabs who cross picket lines during a strike benefit when the union obtains a contract with a raise.
What will happen if the Court overturns the Abood precedent and rules public employees can ride for free?
Many believe that defections from public sector unions will soar to the point where unions will be broke if not broken entirely. Maybe so but then again maybe not. Let's take the UFT as an example.
While thousands would leave the UFT if they were not compelled to pay dues and the UFT treasury would suffer a severe blow, a negative Supreme Court decision would force the union to actually become a union again. Right now the leaders know member dues money is coming, whether or not the teachers are in the union, vote in union elections or care at all. To put it simply, our union's leadership can take the members for granted. Some would argue they treat us with outright disdain. Add to this how one time UFT President Albert Shanker set up an electoral system where it is next to impossible to defeat the leadership from his Unity Caucus in an election so there is virtually no accountability to the members and plenty of cynicism.
I do not want the California Teachers Association to lose this case. Precedent and even some conservative status quo thinking would seem to favor the unions prevailing but we have no idea what the Court's five conservative Supreme Court Justices will do. (We are optimistic that the four more liberal Justices will vote to uphold the precedent by siding with the union.) As we wait for this case to be argued and decided, union leaders should use the time to wake up and start supporting the membership as a union and not just looking for a seat at the table with the power brokers of the Democratic Party. Sitting at the table to discuss our latest surrender terms and then claiming victory is not a strategy that can be used any longer.
I would recommend a different approach.
Some have told me how the UFT is really a company union, one that is basically part of management while others have said the union has totally sold us out. I would not go this far but with automatic dues being threatened, the union might want to consider some steps to save itself. Some possible questions for the leadership to grapple with here in New York City:
- Can they find out why over 80% of active members don't vote in union elections?
- Could they investigate why so many members believe the UFT is irrelevant to their lives? It can't all be the fault of the membership.
- Would the UFT consider putting in structural democratic reforms so high school teachers could once again exclusively elect their vice president?
- Would they agree to in school elections or some kind of proportional representation (get 20% of the votes and win 20% of the seats) to elect delegates to the NYSUT and AFT conventions and seats on the Executive Board that runs the union so more members will participate in the process?
- Would they be able to stop calling each new disastrous teacher evaluation system a victory?
- Could they actually support the opt out from testing movement that parents are leading throughout the state but has not caught real fire in New York City?
- Could they tell us the truth that the city has money instead of saying that the cupboard is bare come contract time?
- Can they support their members against what are unfortunately too many tyrannical principals?
- Can they push for something more than a modest increase in Teachers' Choice but also emphasize working for lower class sizes as part of the contract and safe environments for all children to learn?
- Can they agree that teacher autonomy in the classroom is an important goal for all teachers that will help students learn?
- Can they stop saying they are supporting the Absent Teacher Reserves and actually end this madness by demanding ATRs are placed in schools we would agree to go to?
- At the very least, can they give ATRs a chapter of our own so that people who have walked the ATR walk can negotiate the next ATR agreement with the Department of Education? (The current one expires in 2016.)
- Are they capable of actually listening to their members?
Instead of using this time as a wake up call, I expect it is likely that the UFT leaders, New York State United Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers leadership will yell loudly for unity in this storm. They will also call for some symbolic actions that will have little or no impact on the Supreme Court Justices. All eggs are likely to be put in a Hillary Clinton for President campaign. In addition, they are probably going to call anyone who disagrees with them anti-union, thus furthering the cynicism.