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Commentary By Alice B. Lloyd, Max Eden

Will Janus v. AFSCME Rein In Out-of-Control Public Sector Unions?

Governance Public Unions

If unions are unable to collect dues from those who are disinclined to support the ever-more-political institutions, maybe they will tone it down already.

The new year is shaping up to be one of reckoning for public-sector unions. Just a few days before Christmas, Janus v. AFSCME got its slot on the calendar of the Supreme Court—which, with Neil Gorsuch on the bench, is not stacked in labor’s favor.

At stake is whether public unions can require workers to pay agency fees. The court is poised to revisit its 1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which found that public employees who didn’t pay would benefit undeservedly as “free riders.”

Plaintiff Mark Janus, an employee of the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services disagrees. He maintains that forcing him to pay when the union’s political activities, or its very existence, conflict with his views constitutes compelled speech, and a violation of the First Amendment.

Teachers unions—among the biggest and most politically entangled of the lot— claim to serve teachers, schools, and students apolitically. Their critics, meanwhile, see professional dereliction deepened by partisan distractions. And, as 2017 came to a close and Janus’s day in court crept nearer, we critics didn’t have far to look.

In late December, Elizabeth Davis, president of D.C.’s Washington Teachers Union, emailed members to request their support to protest a D.C. police officer’s participation in a counter-terrorism seminar in Israel, sponsored by the left-leaning Anti-Defamation League. Her entreaty, titled “STOP the Deadly Exchange!” complained thus: “The trainers on this trip include Israeli military and intelligence officials who enforce a military occupation. Israeli occupation is no model for DC. DC citizens, our children and their families deserve better.”

“Teachers unions—among the biggest and most politically entangled of the lot— claim to serve teachers, schools, and students apolitically.”

It’s only more troubling when one learns where she got the idea. “Stop the Deadly Exchange” is a social media campaign, launched and promoted by Jewish Voice for Peace—an organization that, despite its name, promotes terrorism. Last year, JVP’s national convention gave a platform to Rasmea Odeh. Odeh confessed to bombing a supermarket, killing two young men, and was convicted. She was released in a prisoner exchange, and then lied about her terrorist record to U.S. immigration authorities. In saner times, such a person would be universally reviled. But in 2017, Odeh became a cause celebre of the activist left.

In a video explaining the “Deadly Exchange” campaign, JVP links American police brutality to participation in Israeli counter-terrorism seminars, which allegedly promote a “racist ideology.” Many D.C. teachers may personally prefer not to echo agitprop from an organization that highlights and promotes a convicted terrorist. But since they’re required to pay agency fees, they’re forced to support this kind of speech from their union president.

But even as the WTU’s leaders advocate for far-left, terrorist-tinged causes, they have abdicated the fundamental purpose of defending their members. As a recent NPR report revealed, Ballou High School in Southeast D.C. got its whole senior class admitted to college last year by perpetuating a massive, systemic scam. Teachers who refused to pass truant and undeserving seniors ended up quitting —or were given poor evaluations that could lead to dismissal. One quarter of Ballou’s teachers left last year, the same year that the school celebrated record-high graduation and college placement rates. Shouldn’t unions be more focused on protecting teachers from an oppressive administration than protesting “occupation” by Israel?

In a rather less ideologically extreme example, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten was arrested at an early December protest on behalf of DACA kids. Americans differ on immigration policy, but broadly agree that kids who fled their home countries for safety ought to be accommodated here.

If only teachers’ unions could express that same level of compassion for children from the Bronx.

Reporters at NY1 recently discovered through FOIA requests that hundreds of NYC students transferred to other schools for reasons of personal safety. It’s worse than it sounds: Kids need a police report to request transfer. We have no idea how many requests were rejected. And, most perversely of all, the de Blasio administration made it substantially harder for school violence to get processed as a police complaint.

But the safety of these schools and others like them, a cause not beneath the notice of the national union, is too complex to campaign on.

Teachers’ unions could be working for their members. They used to protect teachers from capricious principals, who could and did, in the early 20th century, fire them for not conforming to a weight and height chart. In the era of the EEOC, society’s need for them is less obvious. But when a principal chases away a quarter of teachers in order to advance a fraudulent graduation scheme, the union should be there to protect them. When a mayor risks students’ safety to advance ideologically driven school discipline overhauls, the union should defend them.

Today’s unions don’t because, quite frequently, they don’t have to. In 20 states, teachers are forced to pay agency fees to support their union, even if they feel they get absolutely nothing in return—and even if their money funds political activity these teachers abhor.

“But even as [Washington Teachers Union] leaders advocate for far-left, terrorist-tinged causes, they have abdicated the fundamental purpose of defending their members.”

Mark Janus’s case, soon to be heard by the Supreme Court, falls into the latter column. A similar case last year in Friedrichs v. CTA—which experts expected the unions to lose—ended in a 4-4 stalemate after Justice Scalia’s untimely death.

Janus could prove calamitous for teachers’ unions in their current form. Remember Scott Walker’s union-busting Act 10? When Act 10 passed, political spending by the teachers’ union fell by about 90 percent, and membership dropped by over half. Janus would take Act 10 national.

The coming crisis presents the union with an opportunity to do what it’s meant to. If Wisconsin is any indication, they’ll have to reconsider their purpose in order to prove to their teachers that their member dues are worth paying. Less facile leftist activism, and more watchful stewardship of hardworking educators and their vulnerable students. As the WTU’s Elizabeth Davis would say, “our children and our families deserve better.”

This piece originally appeared in The Weekly Standard


Alice B. Lloyd is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

Max Eden is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on Twitter here.

This piece originally appeared in The Weekly Standard