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Friday, September 24, 2021

Protecting teachers unions from renewed assaults is a moral imperative

A new lawsuit aims to strip crucial funds from teachers unions

Teachers unions are threatened once again thanks to a new lawsuit that aims to eliminate “agency fees,” a crucial source of funding that unions often make mandatory for non-members they represent. If the lawsuit were to succeed, teachers unions would lose a significant amount of money used to help finance the wage and workplace negotiations that help make schools better and more effective for students.

The lawsuit, filed by the conservative Center for Individual Rights (CIR) in concert with a group of California educators, strongly resembles another case that went to the Supreme Court last year, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Assn., that failed in March after the court deadlocked 4-4 following Justice Scalia’s death. As the possibility of a Trump presidency seemed increasingly remote, the split decision was hailed as a victory by labor advocates. Now the opposite is true.

The plaintiffs in the 2016 case argued that agency fees violated an employee’s First Amendment right to free speech because the money collected was being spent on activities like collective bargaining — something a worker might disagree with on principle.

That position seems to willfully ignore the fact that in the 22 states that currently authorize unions to impose agency fees, caveats already exist to help exempt teachers from paying for a union’s political activities. Teachers in California can waive as much as a third of the fee by simply filling out a single-page form. Exceptions are also made for “conscientious objectors” — people who belong to a particular religion, body or sect that opposes public employee organizations.

Make no mistake: this new effort to stifle teachers unions by the CIR is nothing more than the latest witch-hunt in a decades-long assault on American organized labor. Unfortunately, they may succeed in their efforts. While Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, has not made any similar decisions, it’s probably safe to say the strict textualist would rule against teachers unions.

It’s a disheartening prospect, in no small part because of the undemocratic nature of this line of attack. In California, non-member workers represented by unions accounted in 2016 for only 1.6 percent of the entire workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This means the potential grievances of an extreme minority of workers could significantly diminish the power of millions of more unionized workers to be effectively represented in workplace negotiations.

Though the numbers of teachers paying agency fees to the CTA is higher, at nine percent, the fact remains: it would be fundamentally unfair for the collective bargaining rights of so many workers to be stifled by the concerns of a few. Tossing these critical agency fees would amount to an entirely hostile attack on workplace equity by union opponents.

And students would ultimately bear the greatest cost of weakened teachers unions. The working conditions educators face — including their salary, resources made available to them and the level of input they have with administrators — all contribute to whether they continue teaching or add to the increasing turnover rate costing schools billions every year.

But beyond the mere dollar cost, the damage of low teacher retention rates is felt most profoundly by students who benefit enormously from the experience and consistency of seasoned professionals. This is especially true in low-income school districts, where inexperienced teachers are more often discouraged by the lack of support they receive from employers.

Because teachers unions help educators by working with employers to improve support and resources, their strength is the strength of the students. Whether they can remain financially solvent isn’t a policy point as much as it is a moral imperative — a debt we owe to our children.

If the United States wants to boast an educated population, we will take that debt seriously.
Written by: Eli Flesch — ekflesch@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.

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