In Janus v. AFSCME, the Supreme Court strikes down agency fees. The unions have said that the case is a corporate attack on teacher interests. Eric Heins, the President of the California Teachers Association, insists that “corporate CEOS, the wealthiest one percent, and politicians who do their bidding” launched the lawsuit. “They want to use the Supreme Court to take away the freedom of working people to join together in strong unions,” he says.
But a majority of the public—and of teachers themselves, don’t see it that way.
A month ago we and our colleagues at the Program on Education Policy and Governance in the Harvard Kennedy School asked a nationally representative cross-section of 2,230 Americans the following question: “In some states, all teachers must pay fees for union representation even if they choose not to join the union. Do you support or oppose requiring all teachers to pay these fees even if they do not join the union?” The question was posed as part of a broader survey of public opinion on education topics which is scheduled for release by Education Next later this summer.
When it comes to agency fees, the nays have it by a clear majority. No less than 56% of the general public and 54% of public school teachers are opposed. Only 25% of the public and 37% of teachers favor collecting union dues from non-members. The remaining respondents say they neither support nor oppose the idea.
Opposition is greatest among those living in right-to-work states (61% opposed, 20% in favor), which already have laws that allow employment without union membership or fee payment. But even in states that allow agency fees, a clear plurality is opposed to the practice (51% to 31%).
Support for fees ticks up when those surveyed are given arguments in favor and against them. Before another equally representative group of respondents was asked for its opinion, it was told the following: “Some say that all teachers should have to contribute to the union because they all get the pay and benefits the union negotiates with the school board. Others say teachers should have the freedom to choose whether or not to pay the union.”
When given both sides of the argument, 52% of public school teachers remain opposed while 41% support agency fees. Among the general public, support for agency fees budges upward to 37%, but the negative view, at 44%, still commands a plurality.
The implications of the Janus ruling are serious for teacher unions. When we asked teachers how pleased they were with their local union’s political activities, we discovered that many union members are less than enthusiastic about what is being done in their name. Only 46% of teachers are satisfied with their local union’s political activities, while 23% say they are dissatisfied and another 32% take a neutral position.
Without the ability to impose agency fees, unions could lose a hefty share of their revenue. Leaked documents drawn up by the National Education Association indicate the union is already preparing a 13% budget cut of $50 million. That may be an optimistic projection.
— Paul E. Peterson and Albert Cheng
Paul E. Peterson is senior editor of Education Next and professor of government and director of Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, where Albert Cheng is a postdoctoral fellow.