Teachers will find out if what they’ve fought for over the decades can be sustained. I’m referring now to Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, which the U.S. Supreme Court is now hearing (“Public-Sector Union Fees Don’t Violate the First Amendment,” The Nation, Feb. 23). At issue is whether requiring teachers – as well as other public-sector employees – to pay union fees violates their First Amendment rights.
I’ll restrict my comments in this column to teachers. The agency fees charged cover the cost of negotiating and implementing collective-bargaining agreements. By law, this service must be provided to all employees. In 1977, the high court ruled in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that public employees can be charged such a fee. But it drew a line between forced payments for a union’s strictly political activities and those for more conventional union work.
If the plaintiffs genuinely believe that they are being coerced into paying into an organization that represents views they do not support, then they should refuse to accept the raises they receive and the protections they enjoy. In short, they can’t have it both ways. The First Amendment says nothing about the right to get something for nothing. I participated in three strikes during the 28 years I taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District. I vividly remember that some teachers crossed the picket line for what they said was “principle.” Yet they had no qualms about accepting the benefits the strikes provided.
I believe the real motive of the Janus suit (as well as its predecessor Friedrichs v. the California Teachers Association) is to abolish public-service unions. Teachers unions in particular are being scapegoated for all the ills afflicting public schools. The media love to headline their shortcomings. I acknowledge them, but I hasten to point out that without strong unions, teachers would be at the mercy of abusive principals. The New York Times exposed such matters in 2004 at Brooklyn Tech, one of New York City’s elite high schools. Without union protection, even exemplary teachers can be harassed to the point that they request a transfer or quit. That’s a lesson the nation will learn as the best and the brightest avoid making teaching a career. Given the present makeup of the Supreme Court, I expect the plaintiffs to prevail.