By Threatening Protections for Teachers, “Janus” Case Also Threatens Students’ Interests

Jeff Bryant’s piece on Tuesday about what the St. Paul Federation of Teachers accomplished in its recent negotiations and threatened strike couldn’t be more timely. The union negotiated an agreement with the school district on February 12, 2018.

After all, on Monday, February 26, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case of Janus v. AFSCME.  This is the most recent case to challenge union “agency” or “shop” fees charged to teachers or other public employees who elect not to join a union but whose interests are represented by the union they have chosen not to join. These non-members are already exempt from paying the portion of union membership fees that cover the union’s political activity. The current case was brought by Mark Janus an Illinois member of AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council.

The Associated Press‘s Mark Sherman explains the Janus case targeting public employee unions: “The unions represent more than 5 million government workers in 24 states and the District of Columbia.”  The U.S. Supreme Court considered the same issue two years ago in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, but the justices split 4 to 4 after Justice Antonin Scalia died. At the time, after Justice Scalia’s death, Louis Freedberg reported for EdSource that the, “U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition from the plaintiffs… to rehear the case that the court had already ruled on in a 4-4 opinion….” Experts are less optimistic about the Janus case, because President Trump’s very conservative appointee Neil Gorsuch will likely decide the case.

These court cases to deny membership dues to public employee unions are, of course, an attack on the continued existence and political power of the unions themselves. These days teachers unions are in the cross hairs because of their size and political power.  Jeff Bryant covers the recent settlement negotiated between the St. Paul, Minnesota teachers union, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, and the school district’s administration only hours before a threatened teachers’ strike. Bryant’s piece demonstrates why a decision to undermine teachers unions in the Janus case would undermine the public interest—in this case by denying urgently needed services for the children in the schools of St. Paul, Minnesota. At the heart of the union contract being negotiated were demands that the school district invest in direct programming for children.

Nick Faber, the president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, is described by Bryant, framing the threatened teachers’ strike about “things that have to do with students.” Bryant continues: “While the union got quick tentative agreements on ‘cost-neutral’ proposals the district was most reluctant to agree on things that cost money, including reducing class sizes, improving education services for English learners and special education students, and funding the implementation of restorative practices—an approach to school discipline that focuses on reconciliation rather than harsh punishments. Reducing class sizes necessitates hiring more teachers and perhaps building more classrooms.  Improving the learning experiences for children who don’t speak English well or who have learning disabilities requires hiring new staff specialists….  And implementing new discipline practices means teachers have to be trained in the new practices and they need time for the process of reconciliation to play out.”

Bryant explores serious school funding challenges even in a state known historically for being relatively generous to schools: “Minnesota, normally thought of as one of the more progressive states in the nation, has for the past few decades trended with most of the rest of the country in cutting public services while giving more tax breaks to private organizations and the wealthiest individuals.  Education funding has been particularly hard hit, with aid to public schools nearly $1 billion short, in inflation adjusted dollars of what it was in FY 2003, according to a calculation by the North Star Policy Institute. Nearly $400 million of this reduction is concentrated in just two districts: Minneapolis and St. Paul, the districts with the highest concentrations of low-income black and brown students. Recently, Minnesota increased education spending to slightly exceed pre-recession levels. But funding increases have been too small to keep pace with the growing needs of educating English language learners and students with learning disabilities.

No strike by school teachers during a contract negotiation can command an increase in either state funding or local school taxes, but, according to Bryant, “Using their contract negotiations as leverage, St. Paul teachers aimed to address under-funding by publicly calling on the district to join forces with them to go after big money holders to pay their fair share to support public schools.”  One demand is that large, tax-free nonprofits, which are making relatively small  “compensatory” donations to the schools as gifts, begin to make gifts that are commensurate with their size. “The city had also given businesses millions of dollars in various forms of tax abatements….  And big businesses use their charitable contributions to local schools for public relations purposes while dodging far larger amounts of tax contributions they could be paying to the community.” “St. Paul Federation of Teachers presented a detailed analysis showing Minnesota corporations had benefited from changes in state laws to substantially lower their effective tax rates and sequester much of their holdings in offshore tax havens.”

It will be important to watch whether the St. Paul Federation of Teachers’ advocacy for fairer and more generous taxing policies pays off by yielding local changes in policies like tax abatement and in state school finance increases, but in the meantime, according to union president Faber, “We spend a lot of time coalition building with other local organizations.” Bryant concludes, “One consequence of this kind of broad-based organizing is that parents in St. Paul are visibly on the teachers’ side and have become vehemently opposed to any proposals to further cut funding for their children’s schools.”

Minnesota is a state where public employee collective bargaining remains strong, unlike its neighbor, Wisconsin, which led the attack on public sector unions—beginning in 2011, after the 2010 red tide in which eleven states experienced the election of trifecta Republican governments—senate, house, and governor. Here is Gordon Lafer, in The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time, describing the anti-union wave across these states: “Starting in 2011, the country has witnessed an unprecedented wave of legislation aimed at eliminating public employee unions or, where they remain, strictly limiting their right to bargain.  At the same time, the overall size of government has been significantly reduced in both union and nonunion jurisdictions. The number of public jobs eliminated in 2011 was the highest ever recorded, and budgets for essential public services were dramatically scaled back in dozens of states. All of this–deunionization, sharp cuts in public employee compensations, and the dramatic rollback of public services–was forcibly championed by the corporate lobbies, who made shrinking the public sector a top policy priority in state after state… Furthermore, cuts in public services were not made reluctantly—as a temporary calamity to be mitigated whenever possible—but were embraced by legislators as an affirmative policy choice. Many of the states that enforced the most draconian cuts simultaneously adopted new tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy…”  (pp. 45-46) “The labor movement serves as the primary political counterweight to the corporate agenda on a long list of issues that are not per se labor-related. To the extent that unions can be removed as a politically meaningful force, the rest of the agenda becomes much easier to execute.” (p. 93)

As we watch what happens with the Janus case later this spring, it will be important to remember that in St. Paul, Minnesota, as the teachers’ contract came up for negotiation this winter, the teachers demanded as negotiating points the expansion of programs needed by their students. The St. Paul Federation of Teachers lifted up the need to reduce class size, improve education services for English learners and special education students, and redesign the discipline system to focus on mediation and reconciliation rather than harsh punishments. And the union made a point of challenging tax breaks to benefit corporations and the wealthy, who, teachers insisted, should be supporting the wellbeing of the community and its children.

Update: For an in-depth discussion of the Janus case and its implications, check out this article in today’s Detroit News.