Ruling for Janus Would Reduce Conflict in Washington State Schools
On February 26th, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Mark Janus, a child support specialist working for the Illinois state government, was challenging state laws that force him to pay dues to the AFSCME union. He does not agree with the union’s politics or policies and does not believe he should have to help pay to support them. The Supreme Court will likely issue a decision by late June.
If Mr. Janus wins his case, teachers, students, and families across the country will benefit, as school employees learn they do not have to join a union against their will. Ending forced unionism will reduce fear and conflict in public school working conditions, meaning increased morale and respect for teachers, and higher-quality instruction for students.
Currently, public school teachers in Washington State must pay about $1,000 in annual dues to the powerful Washington Education Association (WEA) or risk losing their jobs. Many feel intimidated, moreover, fearing they will be punished if they voice opinions contrary to those of union executives.
Many teachers in Washington State are unhappy with this state of affairs. David Gaston is one of five Washington teachers who have filed a class-action lawsuit against the state teachers’ union. He explains:
I was pressured to join the teachers’ union even though it didn’t represent my views regarding teaching special education. I quickly recognized the teachers’ union supported political candidates and issues that were against my political and religious beliefs. I know many teachers who feel the same way I do, but they are afraid to speak out in fear of repercussions from the union and potentially losing their job.
Teachers have to pay the union for the protection of teacher tenure, which many teachers oppose. Teachers have to pay the union to prohibit merit pay, which a lot of teachers support. Teachers have to pay the union to support hiring, firing, and seniority-assignment rules, which many teachers oppose. Teachers have to pay the union to intimidate school administrators to sign unaffordable pay and benefit packages, which many teachers feel expose them to future layoffs. Teachers have to pay the union for strikes that close schools to students, which teachers know is illegal.
When teachers have no voice, students suffer as a consequence. Federal data show children in Washington State are more likely to miss school due to a strike than in any other state. Strikes divide communities and disrupt classroom instruction. Ending strikes and school closures, and increasing voluntary cooperation, would create better conditions for students.
The union also lobbies against charter schools, even though many teachers support them. It pursues smaller class sizes instead of increased teacher pay, which enriches union bank accounts, not the bank accounts of teachers.
Teachers do not like paying unions whose political goals hurt the reputation of their profession and even damage the education of children. They know WEA union executives are the primary obstacle to education reform in Washington State. Every year, the WEA collects $37 million in the form of forced dues from Washington teachers. School districts automatically take these dues from teachers’ paychecks. This protected revenue and a thicket of special laws give this union special status, making the WEA union the most powerful lobby in the state.
Mark Janus complains that paying dues to government unions has resulted in Illinois’ current financial difficulties. “For years,” Janus said, the union “supported politicians who put the state into its current budget and pension crises. … That’s not public service."
The same dysfunction has taken hold in Washington State. Government sector unions use mandatory union dues to help elect the governor, who then approves large pay and benefit increases to the unions. The McCleary school funding lawsuit, filed and funded by the WEA, increased annual dues to the WEA from $29 million to $37 million. Property taxes have gone up, and the state budget has been put under strain that may prove unsustainable.
This is not public service. It’s self-interested public disservice. By upholding Mark Janus’ First Amendment rights and leveling the playing field for teachers and students, the Supreme Court can provide a real public service to students and families across the country.
Liv Finne is the director of the Center for Education at the Washington Policy Center.