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A Single Spark Can Start a Wildfire

By William Ayers

Demonstrators outside the US Supreme Court during arguments in the union fees case Janus v. AFSCME, on February 26, 2018.
Demonstrators outside the US Supreme Court during arguments in the union fees case Janus v. AFSCME, on February 26, 2018. Photo credit: WFSE/AFSCME C28.

The US Supreme Court ruled earlier this week in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and found in favor of Mark Janus, a child support specialist with the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, who chose not to join the union, but was required under Illinois law to pay what are called “fair share” fees to AFSCME as the collective bargaining agent for all state workers. Janus argued that even though he was covered by the collective bargaining agreement, it was a violation of his First Amendment rights to force him to support the union. AFSCME contended that requiring workers who choose not to join the union to pay a smaller portion, or a “fair share,” is reasonable since they, along with their dues-paying colleagues, benefit concretely from collective bargaining. Without agency fees, those who don’t pay anything at all are essentially “free riders”—or “takers” to borrow a term-of-art from the conservative playbook—benefiting from the work of others, but neither participating nor contributing.

Janus followed Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a case organized and championed by powerful forces bent on destroying organized labor, specifically public-sector unions. Friedrichs challenged agency fees collected by the California Teachers Association, an affiliate of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

When Justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly in early 2016, the Supreme Court deadlocked (4-4) on Friedrichs. In 2017, after Neil Gorsuch replaced Scalia and the Supreme Court returned to a full complement of nine Justices, the Court agreed to hear Janus, a substantially similar case. With the addition of Justice Gorsuch, the anti-labor forces won the day, and “right-to-work” became the law of the land.

Public-employee unions were already barred from spending fair-share fees on electoral politics, but Janus asserted that any action by a government employee union, including collective bargaining, is inherently political, and that therefore spending money on anything constitutes forced political speech and violated his First Amendment rights. AFSCME and other public employee unions argued that since the law requires it to provide due representation to all members for an entire unit, including non-members like Janus, then depriving AFSCME of fair-share fees would make it possible for Janus and others to enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining without having to pay anything for those benefits. If a huge number of workers became free riders, the result would devastate AFSCME financially, and create divisions among the employees. Labor leaders have argued that the case had nothing to do with free speech, and union destruction was the real goal of the law suit all along.

But there is so much more to the story: this all comes in the wake of teacher revolts that swept the country this past Spring. The day before West Virginia teachers walked out last February, sparking a rolling and accelerating rebellion, a teacher revolution was “impossible.” The day after they won their demands, the revolution became “inevitable.”

That’s the rhythm of every revolution throughout history: impossible on to inevitable in the blink of an eye.

I’ve never before heard of a state-wide teachers’ strike. This past Spring, the unheard of was breaking out all over.

West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, Colorado, and no one can say for sure where the rebellion might spark up when school opens in the Fall.

But this much is clear: these initial hot spots were among the twenty-seven “right-to-work” states (or “right-to-work-for-less” states as labor refers to them) with severely limited bargaining rights and prohibitions against workers paying “agency fees” in exchange for representation.

While destroying or weakening organized labor, specifically public-sector unions, has been a right-wing dream for decades, the anti-union forces may come to regret what they’d wished for just as they get the first sweet taste of the victory they’d sought. After all, unions and collective bargaining also have provided stability and labor peace—the opposite of what’s sweeping the country now—and this new reality will open up new strategies and new tactics, and a challenge to traditional forms of business unionism.

The conservative assault on teachers’ unions and the attendant disregard for everyday school teachers by a range of political figures and power brokers is nothing new—teachers are routinely characterized as lazy, incompetent, unaccountable functionaries who work six hours a day, nine months a year, and still lay about their well-appointed teacher lounges whining while their special-interest unions protect them with unfair contracts that have been foisted on unsuspecting school boards.

Or, so goes the familiar story.

What’s new—and entirely encouraging for those of us who care about teaching and advocate for a strong public school system—is the spontaneous series of actions highlighting the desperation that has brought teachers to the breaking point: salaries that require full-time teachers to wait tables or drive Uber to make ends meet; furlough days for teachers and staff; catastrophic classroom overcrowding; inadequate and outdated classroom supplies; the wholesale destruction of arts programs, and more. None of this would be acceptable for the children of the privileged, and in a democracy, where all people are assumed to be of incalculable value, none of this should be acceptable for the children who come to school with less.

These teacher actions—each one demanding adequate funding and authentic support for public education—also challenge the myths about teachers and public education that have dominated the national debates until now, myths like “you can’t fire the bad ones,” or “teachers unions negatively impact student test scores.” As one Arizona teacher said from the picket line, “I’m not striking against my students—I’m striking for my students.”

“Pencils down” walk-outs should remind us that good working conditions are good teaching conditions, and that good teaching conditions create good learning conditions. Collective bargaining and union membership not only result in higher wages and benefits for teachers and more stability in the teaching profession. When teachers ask for smaller classes, full arts programs, and well-paid support staff including counselors, social workers, and nurses, it’s ridiculous to cast those demands as narrow or self-interested. Yes, those things are good for teachers—and they are essential for a decent learning environment. The voice of teachers in these and other matters represents what’s good for students and their families as well.

The broader conflict is about the future of organizing in general and asks us to rethink strategies for labor organizing in particular. The Koch brothers and other wealthy and powerful right-wing forces are mobilized—under the banner of “ensuring worker freedom”—to challenge worker protections and to destroy any remnants of organized labor as we’ve known it for most of a century. Their grand design includes accumulating a string of state-level victories while building momentum toward undoing all federal labor laws that offer workers’ protections. They also support a proposed pro-employer Employee Rights Act, a vast overhaul of federal laws governing union organizing, and they have a powerful ally in the Trump administration, which has already changed the previous administration’s overtime rule and joint employment standard.

Anticipating an unfavorable ruling in Janus, Illinois Local 150 of the Operating Engineers filed a suit challenging the state of Illinois’ requirement that they represent non-dues-paying members. They argued that if they can’t collect fair-share fees then they should not be obliged to represent non-members. It’s then a small step to establishing that unions should be permitted to organize and represent individuals within a workplace or bargaining unit without winning a majority vote in an election.

But we are not at the end of the story, and no one should expect the rolling teacher revolt to end soon. Teachers in West Virginia offer a glimpse of what’s ahead—a nationwide rising and resistance to the destruction of public education.


About the Author 

William AyersWilliam Ayers was Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the founder of the Small Schools Workshop and the Center for Youth and Society, and the author of many books including Teaching Toward FreedomA Kind and Just ParentFugitive Daysand Public Enemy, and co-author of “You Can’t Fire the Bad Ones!” Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamAyers.