In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, teachers union officials were not shy in exercising their freedom of speech to express their outrage. However, this is especially ironic because these public-sector unions (and many more) have denied independent-minded teachers their freedom of speech for more than forty years.
Justice Samuel Alito’s well-reasoned opinion for the Court’s 5-4 majority held that public-sector unions violate the First Amendment rights of public workers by forcing them to pay fees that subsidize politically tinged union activities. According to the Supreme Court, state-sanctioned union dues constitute government-compelled speech.
The reaction to the ruling from union leaders and public officials has been hostile, to say the least. For example, Chicago Teachers Union vice president Jesse Sharkey flagrantly stated, “Our movement is not going away. We’re going to continue to advocate for what’s just. The Supreme Court, the Supreme Court be damned.” Advocacy is fine, but ‘Supreme Court be damned’ echoes the defiant tone of Southern segregationists after Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
The National Education Association (NEA), the big kahuna of teacher unions, took the lead by joining with other public-sector unions to release an intemperate statement pronouncing it “shameful that the billionaire CEOs and corporate special interests behind this case have succeeded in manipulating the highest court in the land to do their bidding.”
That blast rings hollow, coming from an outfit that has extracted billions of dollars involuntarily from modestly paid teachers. Let’s not forget that these unions also manipulate local school board officials (who are often elected with the help of NEA’s war chest) to do the union’s political bidding on issues ranging from an iron-clad “last hired/first fired” policy to blocking school choice.
In the weeks before the widely anticipated Janus ruling, some analysts speculated that the teacher unions would shift to a more moderate stance and strive to be more responsive to teachers and parents. The vitriol of the initial reaction suggests that was wishful thinking.
During the weeks leading up to Janus, Democrat state legislators in several of the 22 compulsory-fee states catered to the teachers unions by passing legislation designed to discourage teachers from leaving or shunning the unions. One of the most common measures seeks to compel all teachers to meet with a union representative within a month after being hired.
Additionally, Maryland and New York require school districts to provide unions with up-to-date contact information for teachers at all times. When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed a package of union-protectionist bills in April, he called the action “the first step of the resistance.” (If Cuomo dreams of leading “massive resistance” to the rule of law, he should know that course didn’t end well for the bitter-end foes of school desegregation.)
Meanwhile, an Assembly-passed bill in California would grant teachers unions at least five days to scrutinize any teacher’s bid to opt-out of the union, making it more difficult for teachers in the Golden State to break free from union control.
The purpose of these shenanigans is clear: To dispatch union operatives to get in the faces of teachers and pressure them to forgo their newly-won rights, or trick them into missing opt-out deadlines. Threats or intimidation are not out of the question given that these union ploys would lack any impartial monitoring. The bullying epidemic in public schools is not restricted to students; teachers unions are notorious for coercion and mistreatment of anyone who opposes their agenda.
Would such tactics actually enable the NEA, American Federation of Teachers, and other public-sector unions to prevent employees from exercising their First Amendment rights? Justice Alito’s strong words suggest such rear-guard actions will not work: “… neither an agency fee nor any other form of payment to a public-sector union may be deducted from an employee, nor may any other attempt be made to collect such a payment, unless the employee affirmatively consents to pay.”
It is possible a few more lawsuits will be necessary to swat down public-sector unions’ effort to nullify the First Amendment rights for public workers. In the long term, it is highly likely these public pickpockets and bullies are going to lose large chunks of their revenue base and perhaps one-third to one-half of their dues-paying members. If they remain obtuse and obstructionist, they could wither away altogether — a result that actually would go a long way towards liberating teachers, students, parents, and local communities from the shackles of enforced educational mediocrity.
Robert Holland (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.