If you’re wondering how teachers unions will survive after the Supreme Court’s Janus decision, consider Bloomington’s District 87 as a test case.
District 87’s union has never collected agency fees—the money that the Supreme Court just ruled unions can no longer collect. Up until now, teachers had a choice between paying for full union membership and paying agency fees (usually cheaper). Those agency fee (or fair share) teachers still got the benefits of contract negotiations but without paying full freight.
Janus will end that. Union leaders and many of the millions of teacher members are angry and worried about what this means for the future of teachers unions.
That future may look a lot like District 87. Even without agency fees, the Bloomington Education Association still counts around 80 percent of District 87 educators (320 out of 400) as full dues-paying members, said BEA President Joe Lewis.
“Generally speaking, we’ve had very good membership numbers without that agency fee. As far as Janus goes, we’re kind of a test case for what might happen in Illinois. Eighty percent membership does seem to sustain us at the BEA pretty well,” said Lewis, a teacher at Bloomington High School.
In 1977, the Supreme Court drew a distinction between agency fees and other, voluntary union dues, which might be used for lobbying or other political activity. The Janus decision erases that distinction. The court's conservative wing found that negotiations by public sector unions are inherently political and nonmembers cannot be compelled to pay for them.
BEA is one of the largest teachers unions in Illinois that doesn’t collect agency fees, Lewis said. The 20 percent who do not join the union are still represented by BEA in contract talks, he said. It’s usually beginning teachers or those at the end of their career who forgo full membership, he said.
“Our message is simple: If members understand the difference between political contributions and the fact we have a lot of contractual issues, especially bargaining and making sure the contract is fulfilled by all parties, once members understand that, they see the value of the contract,” Lewis said. “The contract allows them to make professional decisions that we as educators want to bring to the table. Because we want what’s best for kids. Since we’re the ones in the classroom, they say, ‘Wow, this contract really lets me have a say of what’s happening in the classroom.’ Once they realize that, membership really takes care of itself.”
Unit Five Education Association (UFEA) represents around 1,000 employees in Unit 5. Unlike BEA, it did collect agency fees. Before Janus, there were only three agency fee members, according to UFEA President Lindsey Dickinson, an eighth-grade math teacher.
Now, after Janus, around eight people are not members, including a few dropouts, she said. UFEA members have seen a lot of outreach from so-called opt-out groups that are encouraging members to leave their unions. One of them even contacted Dickinson herself.
“We have to make sure now that people understand the other benefits, besides just contract negotiations, that we’re able to provide,” Dickinson said, referring to professional development opportunities sought by her union, like Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) training.
Some labor experts predict the Janus decision may lead to more strikes. If you look at the wave of teacher uprisings that swept the country this spring, the majority happened in right-to-work states where unions were small and weak (and already could not collect agency fees).
Could that happen in Illinois too?
“In our case, our teachers see the value of the union and are able to speak through it,” Lewis said. “And therefore we haven’t even talked about a strike in years. In those other states, those teachers felt like they lost their voice. And yeah, teachers are probably going to become more militant because they’ll see negative impacts on the students in their classrooms. If that happened here, I would imagine we’d become angrier as well.
“But right now our voice is heard,” he said, “and that’s important.”
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