Public employee unions are waiting to hear the Supreme Court ruling on the Janus case. The Justices will make their opinion known probably in June.
The decision will impact the future of public employee unions as we know them. The specific issue before the court is the right of unions to charge an agency fee for the services they provide, regardless of whether the individual employee covered by the collective bargaining agreement chooses to join the union or not.
It is not about using dues money for political activity. The separation of political action money and agency fees has been the law for decades. No union member is forced to contribute to any union political action fund.
But the problem facing the National Education Association (I was a 30-year member and local president) and the American Federation of Teachers, the other national teacher union, runs deeper than Janus.
Over the past months a teacher revolt has swept across so-called red states. The state and national leadership of the unions have often either followed behind the rank-and-file organizations that have sprung up to fill the leadership vacuum or they have been a target of rank-and-file anger.
In Nevada, the state’s largest local has voted to disaffiliate completely from the NEA.
Out of the 11,000-member Clark County Education Association, only 99 teachers voted in favor of staying with NEA and the Nevada State Education Association.
The turnout for the disaffiliation vote was less than 8 percent of those eligible to cast a ballot.
In Nevada the NEA has responded to their rejection by setting up a new affiliate. The chances of the old team that was just dumped winning the right to represent Clark County teachers again is slim as Nevada law requires them to sign up half the bargaining unit to change representation.
The fight going on in Nevada is more than about who will control the millions of dollars in dues money.
Rank-and-file teacher union members have quietly complained about do-nothing, undemocratic leadership practices for years.
Just days ago, Oklahoma Teachers United, a grassroots group which exploded in membership while leading the state’s teacher walkouts, moved to impeach officers of the Oklahoma Education Association.
Larry Cagle, one of OTU’s leaders, said he supported a campaign to encourage teachers to resign from the NEA-affiliated union.
The break comes amid a surge of statewide teacher strikes and as unions across the country await a Supreme Court decision on whether or not unions could continue to charge dues to nonmembers.
Even in Illinois, a Fair Share state that allows agency fees, the IEA has become more and more an impotent shell of an organization since the state legalized collective bargaining over 30 years ago.
Cinda Klickna, the IEA’s past president complained to me several years ago of the union’s failure to have much influence in the state legislature.
“We used to be able to walk across the street from our office and into any legislator’s office. Those days are gone,” she told me in explaining their failure to protect retiree pension rights.
A court ruling in favor of Janus will be a problem for teachers and collective bargaining.
The red state teacher revolt demonstrates that it might just provide new opportunities for teachers in unions whose leadership has become calcified.