This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The U.S. Supreme Court decided Wednesday in favor of the plaintiff in Janus v. AFSCME, overturning the 1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education and ending compulsory union dues for public employees.
The reactions to the 5-4 decision have been widespread, immediate, and largely predictable. Unions vowed to continue defending working people and lobbying for their rights, while conservative groups called the ruling a victory for free speech.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan called it “a stunning and egregious attack on America’s labor movement.”
Jordan said that many improvements in city schools are due to union negotiations. “Class size; lead-free drinking water; and a minimum of one counselor and nurse at every school are among the provisions achieved through collective bargaining. The PFT will not allow the Court’s ruling to undermine the many improvements to teaching and learning conditions we have achieved through contract negotiations.”
Dolores McCracken, president of the Pennsylvania State of Education Association (PSEA), said she was unhappy, though not surprised, with the ruling and vowed that her union would continue pushing for change.
“If the goal of the people who funded this lawsuit is to silence us, I can tell you that it’s not going to happen. … Together, PSEA members speak out for the kinds of policies that our public school students need to get the education they are entitled to and for the salaries, benefits, working conditions, and respect that every public school employee deserves. That is what PSEA has always done, and that is what PSEA and its members will continue to do – regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision,” said McCracken.
Liberal policy groups decried the ruling. A joint statement issued by Stephen Herzenberg of the Keystone Research Center and Marc Stier of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center voiced frustration with the appointment process of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.
President Trump named Gorsuch after the Republican Senate had refused for a year to hold hearings and vote on President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland. Herzenberg and Stier cited the “abuse of power” as the catalyst for what they declared to be “another step to rig our economy and politics against working families and further diminish the collective rights of working people.”
Leaders and members of the American Federation of Teachers, AFSCME, National Education Association, and Service Employees International Union categorized the decision as “nothing more than a blatant political attack to further rig our economy and democracy against everyday Americans in favor of the wealthy and powerful.”
They also insisted they “will remain a strong and vibrant force for working people and will continue fighting to sustain … families, improve … workplaces and to make … communities stronger regardless of the court’s ruling.”
Philadelphia’s Mayor Kenney expressed firm opposition to the ruling. He was one of nearly two dozen to sign the “Mayors Stand with Working Families” pledge that mentioned ways for cities to protect the rights of municipal labor unions in the wake of the case.
Kenney also released a statement calling the decision an “unfortunate result of an ideological attack on public employee unions, wrapped in the guise of constitutional law … [that] is certain to impact working people who struggle each and every day to move into the middle class.”
Taking an intermediary stance, the National Council on Teacher Quality acknowledged the financial implications that the decision will have on unions. The group, which has worked to impose more accountability on teachers for student outcomes, said it also recognized this as a moment for “union leaders to hit the reset button and show its members and the public that the number one priority is putting effective teachers in the best position to provide students with a quality education.”
Overall, the council concluded: “While this decision will require unions to obtain affirmative consent from teachers prior to collecting funds, in our view it does not hearken the demise of teachers unions. … We encourage union leaders to use this moment to breathe new life into the teaching profession, which will ensure that teachers will be even more engaged in the future.”
By contrast, the conservative, Harrisburg-based Commonwealth Foundation celebrated what it considered “a pathway for more than 330,000 government workers in Pennsylvania to regain their First Amendment rights of free speech and free association,” citing “a 2015 nationwide survey of union members [in which] 76 percent agreed that employees should have the right to decide, without force or penalty, whether to join or leave a labor union.”
The Center for Education Reform, an advocate of charter schools, also endorsed the court’s ruling, writing that “this is good news for the nation, for thousands of educators who have long been exploited by the teachers’ unions, and for families whose educational opportunities have been compromised by their political activity.”
The center’s statement said that unions have stood in the way of moving schools forward. “Education in America is in the midst of a major transformation, which is struggling to realize its full potential in the face of limiting contractual and oppositional forces. From apathy to lack of knowledge to deliberate impediments created by unions, these obstacles have kept education from advancing into the 21st century.”