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Local unions brace for major U.S. Supreme Court decision

If union fee law is overturned, it could have significant impact on school-related public unions.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that employers can bar workers from bringing class action lawsuits against them. The ruling is seen as a major blow to workers’ rights and may be an indicator of how the court will decide the Janus vs. AFSCME case, which will determine whether public sector unions can charge workers who aren’t union members a fee.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Mark Janus, an Illinois state worker, it could decrease labor union revenue and the power of collective bargaining, which has been a tool in helping to secure better pay, benefits, and working conditions for workers, union supporters say.

At issue in the case are laws that allow public unions to require employees who are not union members to pay so-called “fair share” fees. The idea is that employees who are not union members benefit from the collective bargaining of that union and therefore should pay for the union’s representation.

“I am really concerned about the new generation coming in behind me,” said Sandra Dowling, a member of 32BJ SEIU, the union that represents mostly cleaners, property maintenance workers, security officers, window cleaners, building engineers, and school and food service workers. “Like my children and their children. We need these jobs to be there for them and we need these unions.”

The case is the latest battle in the long-fought war between right-to-work advocates looking to maximize business growth and labor unions protecting themselves from exploitation.

In this particular case, however, those in favor of Janus see the obligatory union fees as a free speech issue, because many unions support political candidates or issues that some fee payers don’t.

In education, teachers’ unions are bracing themselves for what could be the next frontier of labor advocacy at a time when teachers in multiple states have walked out of work for better pay and education funding.

Julia Koppich, president of J. Koppich & Associates, an education consulting firm in San Francisco, said that a ruling in favor of Janus could result in more unrest in the nation’s school districts. Behind the veneer of the First Amendment, she said, the case is part of a “bigger campaign against public sector unions.”

“I fail to see how making it more difficult for unions to negotiate contracts that’ll cover teachers’ work lives will better things,” said Koppich. “And I also fail to see how this decision will bring about a flaring of the free speech that allegedly has been constrained under current law.”

William Messenger, an attorney for the National Right To Work Defense Foundation, argued the case on behalf of Janus at the Supreme Court in February. He said the only issue the case will settle is whether individuals have the right to “choose what speech, what advocacy they wish to support.”

In Pennsylvania, the Fair Share Fee Law requires “public employees who are not members of a collective bargaining unit to contribute a fair share fee; establishing payment, notice, objection and reporting procedures; and imposing penalties.”

A ruling in favor of Janus would nullify the law and give members the option to sign up every year instead of renewing automatically.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said that if the court votes in favor of Janus, the PFT would focus on more “deep organizing,” with focused efforts to make sure members understand the union’s commitment to ensuring that their rights are protected.

“Collective bargaining has leveled the playing field for all children as well as all employees in the School District who are represented by the union,” he said.

Last year, the PFT settled a contract dispute with the District that froze teachers’ salaries for more than three years. Adam Blyweiss, a career and technical education teacher in the District, said that the contract provided a bump in salary for him, but that “there is more than just money at stake.”

He said that the contract isn’t perfect but that the positive portions of it “outweighed whatever had been missing.” He said his concern about the Janus decision was that they may not have the opportunity to improve the contract in 2020, when it’s time to renew.

A ruling on the case is expected by the end of the month.