Opinion

Bradford: Could the Supreme Court’s New Union Dues Case Liberate Reform-Minded Democrats to Do What’s Right for Kids?

By Derrell Bradford | October 20, 2017

(Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Janus, the two-faced Roman god from which the month of January draws its name, is associated with gates, transitions, and duality. Janus is best known, however, as the god of beginnings and endings (hence his placement at the start of the Roman calendar). So it’s hard not to see the irony of Janus v. AFSCME, a case on the U.S. Supreme Court’s docket whose resolution could signal the end of public-sector unions as we currently know them.

The case is the other shoe to Friedrichs v. California, which ended in a stalemate after the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. And when the result drops, everyone will be watching.

I wrote about these potentially catastrophic challenges to compulsory union dues last fall, but Rishawn Biddle at Dropout Nation and Nat Malkus at AEI have gone all in on the tea leaves.

Biddle notes that the American Federation of Teachers spent $44 million of its members’ money on lobbying activities and contributions. Those included $900,000 to The Atlantic, $250,000 to the Clinton Foundation, and $175,000 to the Center for American Progress, which released a hit job “report” on private school choice earlier in the year, complete with retweets and holler backs from AFT President Randi Weingarten. It’s a smart strategy when you consider that the media, politicians, and the think tank world are critical to advancing, or stopping, policy change. Malkus offers an “it’s the economy, stupid” view when he details how the Janus ruling would raise the price of union dues precipitously … by as much as 300 percent in some cases.

Either way, a universe of lower dues could certainly curtail teacher union profligacy and influence.

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The Janus ruling may also deliver the closest thing to a level playing field possible for those engaged in the dog-eat-dog scrap over how to evolve American education. But that potential victory will still come with caveats. It’s naive to think (as Malkus also points out) that even with less money in their political coffers, teachers unions will stop being formidable adversaries. Their influence, as well as their ability to spin, corrupt, sabotage, and pollute policy, will remain. An army of smiling women and men will still be among the most trusted people in schools. And the noise machine the unions command — with the megaphone of mailboxes in teachers lounges everywhere — won’t go gently into that good night.

Indeed, teachers and their associations in right-to-work states are powerful despite a lack of forced unionization (e.g., Texas).

Rockets, however, don’t reach escape velocity without sufficient fuel, and the unions are likely not prepared for the gravity of this situation. Having put all their eggs in the basket of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, with an eye toward her appointment of a sympathetic Supreme Court nominee to succeed Scalia, Janus represents the worst of all possible presents, and futures, for both the National Education Association and the AFT.

That said, this nightmare scenario presents a golden opportunity for a group that would seemingly have the most to lose with a gutting of the teachers unions’ financial apparatus. That group is, ironically, none other than card-carrying elected members of the Democratic Party at the local, state, and national levels. Part hostage, part partner, the party now has a chance to pivot and refine its vision in a world where teachers union dollars are now, potentially, just pennies.

To be clear, in recent years the partnership has been mostly one-sided, and the Democratic Party has paid a price for its allegiance. Having failed to deliver the presidency, watched Democrats lose almost 1,000 elected seats in states and Congress since the first midterms of the Obama administration, and driven a wedge between the Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton wings of the party by endorsing Clinton’s candidacy early, you could argue the party is more divided and less empowered despite NEA and AFT support — or, in some cases, because of it.

Indeed, the teachers unions’ prize handmaiden, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, didn’t even receive their endorsement during his campaign.

But it wasn’t that long ago when Democrats, particularly those who believed in school choice, like former Newark mayor and current U.S. senator Cory Booker, were talking to the world about what a drag the teachers unions had become as the Dems worked to embrace new solutions for their communities.

In 2008, Booker offered: “Ten years ago when I talked about school choice, I was literally tarred and feathered. I was literally brought into a broom closet by a union and told I would never win office if I kept talking about charters.”

Now, with the deep pockets of the teachers unions potentially compromised, maybe accepting underperforming schools and iron-clad work rules in return for campaign cash doesn’t have to be the default position anymore. Our kids and our families should be so lucky.

Some folks think this longtime marriage of convenience between the teachers unions and the Democratic Party should have ended already. Though a significant percentage of teachers are registered Republicans, the likelihood of an NEA or AFT local backing a Republican in a blue-state statewide election is highly unlikely. That is, unless it has a score to settle: The New Jersey Education Association currently backs a Trump Republican against the sitting state Senate president, Steve Sweeney, who is a Democrat. Sweeny, an ironworker and member of a private-sector union himself, refused to support a constitutional referendum that would have given pensions a super priority in the state budget, a provision that would have been as selfish as it would have been foolish. Folks deserve more of that sort of leadership, not less.

Sweeney doesn’t need NJEA money, but lots of elected officials do. Maybe the NEA and AFT having less of it will lead to a wealth of something else: good decisionmaking — particularly on education — by members of the party whose key constituency is supposed to be “the little guy.”

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