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In wake of Supreme Court ruling on union fees, Minnesota teachers decide whether to opt out or go all in

People holding signs outside the U.S. Supreme Court
REUTERS/Toya Sarno Jordan
People holding signs outside the U.S. Supreme Court during the Janus v. AFSCME deliberations.

Last weekend, Ryan Fiereck received a phone call from a telemarketer who was very curious about his political learnings and feelings toward his state teachers union, Education Minnesota.

Reading through a number of scripted statements, the woman began to assess his level of allegiance to the union.

In response to one of her final questions — “Instead of paying fees to Education Minnesota that fund political activities and a one-size-fits all approach to education policy, opting out means keeping your money in your community and advocating for solutions that are right for your students. It’s your paycheck. Shouldn’t it be your choice?” — Fiereck reiterated that he was still strongly committed to Education Minnesota.

Fiereck says the call included a lot of misinformation, which was frustrating to him. But when he asked the caller to identify who was sponsoring the survey, he didn’t get an answer.

These calls, along with billboards and emails — all encouraging teachers to drop out of their local and state teachers unions — have sprung up across the state in the wake of the June 27 Supreme Court ruling on union fees.

In siding with the plaintiff, Mark Janus, a child-support specialist in Illinois, the U.S.  Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Janus v. AFSCME that public employees now have the right to fully opt out of paying membership dues to labor groups that collectively bargain on their behalf. Before, they had been required to pay “fair share” or “agency” fees, at a minimum. Those who wanted to access the full package of union benefits had the option to pay full membership dues.

Janus had argued that being forced to pay any level of fees to his union violated his right to free speech, by forcing him to support a union that advocates for things he opposes.

But union supporters — Education Minnesota being chief among them, locally, with more than 90,000 members — see it as a serious assault on the working class.

“The decision is exactly what we expected. We knew it was going to be an example of wealthy elites and corporations trying to rig the economy to make it harder for working people to get ahead. That’s really what it’s about,” said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota in an interview earlier this week. “Our big challenge is going to be pulling back the curtain for our members who are getting these phone calls and saying, ‘These are the people who are calling you. And they’re the same people who have an agenda to continue to deepen divides in society. They’re the ones who are creating divisions along religious, economic and racial lines.’”

Teachers react

According to Education Minnesota, only 5 percent of its 94,638 members opt to pay “fair share” fees. The rest are full members.

Full union member fees, collected by local teachers unions, typically run under $1,000 per year and are automatically deducted from teachers’ paychecks. Those who opt to only pay “fair share” fees generally only save a couple hundred dollars, at most. But the Janus decision means those who opt out fully could end up saving a more sizable chunk of income.

That saving, however, comes at a much higher cost, says Carmen Barbone, a high school English teacher in the Shakopee Public Schools district of 24 years.

“With the Janus decision, it feels like the union is going to be weakened and a school district can then make a decision based on economics, rather than what is best for students,” she said. “I think that’s the worst and most frustrating part for me.”

Barbone is actively involved as a negotiator for her local teachers union, the Shakopee Education Association. She adds that one of her biggest concerns about the outcome of the Janus case is that it may pit teachers against one another, as those who opt to save $800 a year in membership fees still benefit from the contracts that their local unions negotiate on their behalf, as well as many of the same benefits afforded to dues-paying members.

“I worry about a divisive work environment and hope teachers will still understand the value of their union and remain members despite having a choice. Everyone would like to save $800 in dues, but the cost of losing our union is much more damaging.”

Playing out her worst-case scenario, Barbone said if unions were to dissolve completely, so would the protections that she depends on. For instance, job protections that prevent her principal from replacing her with two less experienced teachers for less pay, while navigating the district’s current budgetary issues.

Russell Packard, a former music teacher of 22 years who now works as a teaching assistant in the St. Paul Public Schools district, also views the Janus decision as a huge blow to the teaching profession.

Now given the option, he worries that younger teachers may choose to opt out of paying union dues, since they’re “not earning much money when they’re starting” and they’re trying to pay down college debt. That decision, while understandable, would be shortsighted, he says.

“They may not know how important the union will be to them in the future. As young teachers, they feel they’re immortal, nothing’s ever going to happen to them,” he said. “I’m afraid that membership will fall; and as a result, over the long run, teachers’ working conditions and wages will not improve and keep up with the times and there will be less and less quality teachers attracted to the profession.”

Richard Rosivach, a social studies teacher at Irondale High School in the Mounds View Public Schools district who just completed his 20th year of teaching, says the Janus outcome was no surprise. But he’s disappointed — not only because of the implications for unions, but also because he thinks “the court should respect precedent.”

Currently, he’s not in any leadership roles with his local or state teachers unions. But in years past, he’s served on the governing board for Education Minnesota. He thinks unions will remain strong in Minnesota, despite the ruling, so long as unions continue to be responsive to newer members’ needs.

“I think we’ve done a good job in the last few years of recognizing that the interests of our newer members are not necessarily the bread and butter issues of traditional unionism,” he said. “A lot of the people who are going into teaching these days are really motivated by social justice. A lot of people going into teaching these days are really looking to the union to provide meaningful professional development for them. And to give them a home in education — not just a job. And I think that’s a value and a benefit that unions can really offer.”

Annaka Larson, a dual immersion Spanish teacher at an elementary school in the St. Paul Public Schools district, agrees that unions serve a critical role in building a sense of community that’s important, especially for young teachers, to feel a part of. Partly because “the emotional investment that teachers have in their jobs and in the mission of raising the next generation is huge,” she says.

When she started teaching 10 years ago, Larson says no one ever highlighted this benefit of joining the union. Today, it’s something unions cannot afford to overlook.

“I think every union is going to need to reach out — and not reach out via email, but via, ‘Hey! How’s it going? Can I pop into your classroom and chat with you?’” she said. “It has to be face-to-face, interpersonal conversations. Because that’s what the union is at the most fundamental level.”

She’s involved in a couple of programs that the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, her local union, has advocated for during contract negotiations: a home visit program that compensates teachers for visiting their students before the school year starts to get to know them and their families, as well as an alternative conference model that brings all parents together throughout the year for progress reports on the whole class.

“Those have been the sorts of things that have come out of teachers getting to talk about what we see our students needing and then finding solutions that we can bring to St. Paul that will help our kids,” she said.

'Freedom to choose'

Leading up to the Janus decision, Gotham Research Group, an independent, New York-based research firm, conducted a nationally representative survey of 1,000 full-time traditional public school and public charter school teachers to assess their opinions about unions and the case being considered by the Supreme Court. The research firm consulted members of Educators for Excellence, a teacher-led education reform group, in writing the survey questions. 

The survey shows that teachers are largely committed to their unions, but nearly 75 percent of union teachers indicated a disconnect between the policy decisions championed by their union and their own policy preferences. This sentiment rang true for a smaller sample of 50 Minnesota teachers as well.

Madaline Edison, executive director of Educators for Excellence-Minnesota, says that this disconnect can happen in a few different ways.

“It can show up in terms of climate and culture of unions,” she said. “Depending on the strengths of the union leadership and who shows up at those meetings, sometimes meetings can feel like it’s not a very inclusive space and it’s a few folks who’ve been around the longest who definitely have the strongest voice in conversations. It can be hard as a new teacher — or as a person who hasn’t gone to meetings before — to feel like your voice is heard in those settings.”

Beyond climate and culture, she says some teachers may have “concrete policy differences,” or different ideas about what they want to see in their contract, regarding things like compensation structures or disciplinary measures.

The findings of this survey resonate with Lars Lindqvist, a 4th-year English teacher at North High in the Minneapolis Public Schools district.

“From my perspective, I don’t feel the union goes to great lengths to involve people, actively. My local chapter [the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers] is close to my building. I could go any time,” he said. “But besides from an occasional email, I don’t really see a lot of involvement in my school, on a day to day level. And when you’re teaching, you can really get lost in it.”

The son of a teacher, he says he’s long been a supporter of unions, so he’s always been a full-paying member. But he says teachers unions will have to do a better job, moving forward, of selling teachers on why they should become full members if they want to remain strong.

“Not everyone will join like I did, just because they think it’s important,” he said.

Seeking to address some of the issues of inclusion and culture that she saw with the Minneapolis teachers union, Abbie Finger — an engineering and robotics teacher of nearly 15 years who started out in Chicago Public Schools and moved to Minneapolis Public Schools — recently ran to become president of her union. While she lost to Michelle Wiese, she still see an opportunity for unions to shift their messaging to focus more on “joy and justice” — two principles she centered her campaign on.

“How do we foster that sentiment? Because the fear mentality is not what I think works,” she said. “I think that we could do a better job at instilling hope in our profession and finding ways to really tie into people’s positive emotional spaces — the collaboration, the culture, the hearing of all voice ... at the table.”

Linda Hoekman, a physics teacher at Champlin Park High School in the Anoka-Hennepin School district, says she’s pleased with the Janus decision because “it gives me the freedom to choose whether or not I want to join the union.”

Currently, she only pays agency fees to her local union, she says. At one point in her teaching career, of over 20 years, she chose to be a full-paying union member, she said. But she didn’t get the support she needed when she turned to her union for support, she says, so she went back to just paying the minimum in dues.

She says she and her colleagues don’t really even talk about their membership levels. So she’s not aware of anyone else who’s an agency fee payer. Unless she has a change of heart, however, she’s already decided to opt out of paying union fees altogether, moving forward. In 2017, she paid about $700 in “fair share” fees, about $150 less than full members pay.

“I’m not saying that I won't be part of the union,” she said. “I just know that, right now, I want to hear what they can do for me. I’m looking for them to turn to me … to encourage me to be with them. Right now they just seem so distant.”

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Comments (23)

Insidious

I received the same call. I too enquired about who paid for it, but was denied that information. After getting off the phone, I couldn't help but wonder who would want to destroy teacher's unions so badly that they would throw all this money at the cause? What vision for public education does this entity have? The more I pondered, the darker my thoughts became.

When will looking at the news not be so depressing?

The answer you seek:

It’s both from the think Tank “The Center for the American Experiment” and the Mypaymysay group who is funded by, you guessed it, The Koch Brothers and Betsy Devos.

Support for Members

One teacher interviewed here says she didn't get the support she expected from her union. I'm surprised, because defending members' rights is a critical part of union benefits. Negotiating salary and working condiitions is not the only contribution unions make toward members' fair treatment.

I once served on my community college union's grievance committee. We had the resources to ensure that the grievance procedure was followed meticulously and to represent teachers who would otherwise have been forced to retain a lawyer at their own expense, something very few could afford to do. School administration has all the power, with legal and human resources staff to bear down on a lone teacher. In one instance I was a part of, a Pakistani teacher was denied tenure because his accent was too thick for communication with students. He had played poker weekly with a group that included the college president for four years, but no one had formally or informally informed him that his accent was a problem. His annual reviews had been positive and did not mention communication. We negotiated a plan that included speech coaching and saved that teacher's job.

Will unions be expected to provide legal support to free-riders?

Deterence

Just knowing that employees have a defined procedure for progressive discipline is a deterrent to management shenanigans. So just because you haven't had to ask for representation doesn't mean the union hasn't done anything for you.

Every union member should know this statement of Weingarten Rights:

"If this discussion could in any way lead to my being disciplined or terminated, or affect my personal working conditions, I respectfully request that my union representative, officer, or steward be present at this meeting. Until my representative arrives, I choose not to participate in this discussion."

Management knows they have to have their ducks in a row when employees have skilled representation on their side of the table.

Union Dues

If the teachers union just focused on negotiating contracts and got out of the political arena, they wouldn’t need these dues and all of this would be a non-issue.

Go back to the days when union leadership was an unpaid position and you focused on salaries and benefits. With this focused approach the teachers unions would have a lot more support both inside their profession, but also amongst the public at large.

Bravo!

While I think that union dues would still be needed to provide wage, benefits, and support for members, I think that removing the donations to political parties and candidates would be much more acceptable to many members of the teaching ranks. Even then, as a poster mentioned, the union looks out for all members. If you are new to teaching, the union places more value on tenure rather than competence, so while some may say that new members are "shortsighted", they also realize that that the union values some members more than others.

Union Fees for Teachers

Having spent many years as a school administrator, I found myself on the other side of the table from teachers when it came to matters such as salary, benefits, workloads, evaluation and discipline. That was not always a very comfortable place but I learned a great deal about the benefits of the union for the members it represented. Here are just a couple: the union made me do my job well when it came to evaluation and discipline of teachers and when I did this well, they were supportive rather than a road block; the salary and benefits they negotiated for their members helped my administrative salary and benefit package.

Teachers that feel their union isn't doing much for them forget that the purpose of the union is for the benefit of all not the one.

It's the same song and dance

Empirically and statistically, "right to work" translates to the "right to work for less." That's all this right-wing-led "movement" for "reform" is about. Weakening the teacher's union benefits no one, and certainly not children/students, except for those adults in the community who can't stand the notion of a group of people bargaining collectively for their mutual benefit. Ayn Rand, of course, would be happy about the Janus result, but no one else – outside of a few district residents and school district officials who harbor the above-mentioned hostility to collective bargaining – should be applauding a decision that essentially lets some ride on the coattails of others, for free.

No school district in its right mind wants to negotiate salary and benefits individually with each teacher. The whole purpose of the Janus case, and the reason why it has gotten the financial support necessary to take it all the way to the SCOTUS, is to damage or destroy the primary avenue by which teachers try to secure a living wage and also enjoy a working environment that is at least neutral rather than hostile.

Chip in for the Benefits

If a worker does not want to join the union they don’t have to but should have to pay fair-share union dues to enjoy those benefits provided by the union. You can’t eat the cake unless you chip in and help pay for it. A union works like a democracy.

I didn’t like the results of the last presidential election but I will have to live with it until new elections are held. I can’t opt out of the new tax laws and regulations even if it means I have to pay more than my fair share when compare to the top one percent.

Another attack on public education

The Janus ruling is another systematic attack on public education and unions. You can lump this decision in with charter school legislation, vouchers, privatization, and lack of funding. Each one detoriates public schools and unions.

The premise behind the ruling that Janus over turned was fair fees are necessary to cover the cost of negotiating contracts, managing the contract, defending employees in disciplinary action, and covering the expense of day to day operations of the union. They could not cover the cost of any political activity.

Of course educational union are involved in political activities and the fair share fee doesn’t include those costs. In my experience, those political activities centered around improving the educational experience for students and school employees.

If educational unions did not advocated for students, public schools, and school employees, who would?

Who Advocates for Students and Public Schools?

How about parents and taxpayers who want to get a quality educational system for their tax $s. That's not what they get from a union dominated system that protects incompetent teachers and enforces a strict seniority system for assignments and layoffs.

That’s not true. They get

That’s not true. They get educators that are experienced, well versed in their curriculum, and strOmg in classroom management. New teachers are great and necessary to the field, but in most cases they will not have the quality or strength of a teacher with experience.

We will see how much the teachers

feel supported by the Teachers Union by how many choose to pay dues. If the union is as good as many here at Minnpost feel, 95% of Teachers will opt in to pay their dues, if not you’ll see a huge number not pay. Should be interesting because folks left to their own usually choose what is best for them.

$700 fair share?

multiplied by 94,638 members is over $65M. That seems high. Is that really what's needed to perform the core functions of the union?

Maybe it is...

Young teachers I've spoken to

Young teachers I've spoken to are anxious to reclaim the professionalism of the teaching profession. First step on that road is reforming the NEA into an organization tasked with maintaining best practices, not engaging in the kinds of shenanigans a blue collar trade labor union engages in.

We look forward to welcoming teachers into the ranks of their professional peers; engineers, doctors, architects and lawyers, and are sure they are just as capable of speaking for themselves as we are.

Ivory Towers

Mr. Senker, why the condescension towards things blue collar? Is that not the sort of thing those elitist liberals are accused of? You, like the sail boarding John Kerry.

And while you may look down upon those without college degrees, my money says they are the first folks you call when the A/C is out, the toilet won't flush, or your automobile is not running.

As an economy, we are having a difficult time recruiting for blue collar occupations like the trades. Perhaps it would be easier if those who take those jobs aren't visited with disdain?

Your advice to teachers calls to mind an encounter I once had with a used car salesman. After giving the car a spin, I said I wanted my mechanic to give it the once over. His response, "Oh, do you need his permission?" was laughable. I knew better that to reply, "No! No I don't need his permission! I'm a big boy!"

Employers band together, because they know there is strength in numbers. It is no different for teachers, or smart highly skilled people like airline pilots.

Don't Cover Them

In keeping with the "every person for themselves" attitude of those who don't want to pay "fair share" fees for their union,...

I'd suggest we change the law which requires the contract of the local teacher's bargaining unit to include all teachers,...

so that it no longer covers teachers who are not members,...

with the proviso that no non-member teacher can be paid more than the bargained-for salary schedule.

Let those who don't believe they need collective representation bargain individually for their own contracts,...

and hire their own lawyers if/when the local small town banker seeks to have them fired because they didn't let their kid be a starter on the team,...

or a local minister seeks to have them fired because they taught facts and science which challenged what that pastor "believed" to be true.

No doubt the Randian objectivisits and the "I shouldn't have to pay taxes to educate other people's children (or my future workers)" rich folk,...

will be more than happy to have a few non-union teachers in the local schools making minimum wage (or less).

If you don't want to support the teacher's side of the bargaining/contract system that supports your salary and benefits,...

then you should be COMPLETELY on your own.

Let Teachers Negotiate their own individual contracts

I love that idea. Then the really good teachers can get paid a premium so that they stick with the profession and don't jump ship into another career. And the incompetent or mediocre teachers will get the message to either get their act together or find something else to do.

Sounds like how the rest of the business world works today.

Amazing

It is very unrealistic and incredibly naive to expect that management dispassionately rewards the most skilled and productive employees. Anyone who has spent any amount of time in the real world has seen examples of petty supervisors rewarding the brown nosers and sycophants. The world of management is not now and never has been a meritocracy.

The idea that one individual has more negotiating power on his or her own is laughable. Pay scales and benefits in collective bargaining agreements are minimums, and it is the rare CBA that prohibits paying favored employees more.

The suggestion that, hey, I could pay you more if I could pay the other guy less is nothing more than a cynical attempt to divide and conquer, a time honored tactic of the elite. Solidarity built the middle class in this country. Dividing worker against worker has lead to a hollowing out of that same middle class.

Unions are subjected to

Unions are subjected to constant criticism from the right wing and it is not surprising that teachers and postal workers face so much negativity, since they are members of two of the largest unions remaining.

And That

Is what we call the elephant in the room, one often not mentioned by "objective" journalists, who often fall for hide the hanky tricks.

Unions can use the law to trap the administration.

But will they choose to do so? The administration did it to them, so why not?

Essentially 5 individualists....

imposed their legal point of view because of the position they hold on lots and lots of who did not have the positions that these particular five people hold. It is purely and simply what took place with Janus. It is how our broken system works. Remember the Plessy v Ferguson SCOTUS decision overthrew or redefined the 14th amendment. And Brown etal. Had to refine. Also the case with prohibition. SCOTUS has always been political. The question as we continue with this new nomination is do we make SCOTUS positions totally political by making the positions electable or increase the number of judges to make the postions more representative of the bigger population. Or a mix of the two. We have enough evidence to understand if we choose examine it that something needs to be rejiggered. I suggested we do that as increasingly more very important decisions do not represent the population as a whole.