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U.S. Supreme Court Case Holds Promise for Teachers Freedoms

Protest People

Leaders of organizations and schools across the education reform arena are enthusiastic that on Thursday, September 28, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) agreed to hear arguments in Janus v. AFSCFME. The case was brought forth by Mark Janus, an Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services public employee who believes that forced unionism and the mandatory paying of fees violates his First Amendment rights. A favorable outcome in Janus could pave the way for a loosening on the stranglehold of other public sector employees compelled to pay mandatory union fees. Public school teachers, in particular, stand to benefit from the freedom that would allow them to make their own decisions as to whether or not they pay union dues and fees.


  • Free millions of workers – public school teachers included – from compelled association––a clear violation of the First Amendment
  • Millions of workers will no longer be compelled to pay union fees when opting out of union representation
  • In addition to more take-home pay, teachers will have more freedom to innovate when opting out of mandated association with teachers’ unions
  • A pro-Janus ruling will have no impact on the ability for unions to organize and function
  • The union-employee relationship should improve as unions will demonstrate their value to existing and future members

The case has been winding its way through Federal courts since early 2015 and was stayed pending an outcome in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a case that was deadlocked 4-4 after the tragic passing of Justice Antonin Scalia. While the Janus case was initially dismissed by U.S. District Court after that Friedrichs ruling, the employees, backed by the National Right to Work Foundation, appealed to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in October 2016 which, as expected, upheld the lower court’s decision – paving the way for an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 6, 2017, a petition for Writ of Certiorari was filed and later accepted by SCOTUS. Now the 40-year old ruling in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education which created the current system allowing mandatory fees paid to public unions could very well be overturned.

It’s important to note that the case started with an executive order issued by Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, who sought to abolish mandatory collective bargaining pending review of its constitutionality. Since 2012, six states have passed laws strengthening workers’ rights and freedom from having to pay mandatory union fees. What is most notable is at least three of these states are “blue-to-purple” states with historic ties to organized labor, including Michigan, Wisconsin and West Virginia. Following these laws, teachers’ union membership dropped 20% in Michigan and 58% in Wisconsin. More state policymakers throughout the country are focused on the upcoming Janus case review. With teachers’ union-driven pension rules and union-backed laws that protect uniform pay scales, eschew performance pay and mandate teacher tenure, the elimination of mandatory fees could impact the unions’ ability to wage political battles to defend their turf and oppose proposals that put student achievement and parental choice at the center of every education improvement effort.

CER believes that the Janus case holds great potential for employees and could dramatically improve union-employee relationships. Overturning Abood will allow for teachers to associate as they see fit, providing teachers more freedom and independence to better serve their students. This will not bar union organizing but ensure unions prove their value to each member. Unions should celebrate the opportunity to prove their value to employees rather than relying on mandatory fees.

Instead, it is evident by the recent teachers’ union attacks on education reform that the unions fear the freedom Janus may bring to teachers, particularly as their funds are declining. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union, has also scoffed at the idea that teachers are entitled to the same First Amendment rights as other employees.

Historically, public support for mandatory agency fees is low, and most Americans are unaware that teachers are pressured to join unions and forced to pay union fees even when they decline to join. A June 2017 survey by Education Next found that teachers oppose mandatory fees 47% to 44%, while the general public is 44% to 37% opposed.

As the public’s attention turns to Janus v. AFSCME, it is important to note that this case is bigger than one public employee or one union – this case could improve the learning experience for students by dramatically empowering teachers nationwide, and change the course of American education.

Members of the media interested in writing about this in any aspect, CER’s team can provide insights and commentary, and connect reporters with parents, teachers and those on the ground who will be most affected by the outcome of the case.

Harvard law professor Benjamin Sachs who occasionally writes about labor issues says “it is an enormously big deal… Unions have to provide services and representation equally to everyone in a bargaining unit. But if you can get those services for free, a lot of people won’t pay them. You have a classic free-rider situation.”

Patrick Flavin, a political scientist at Baylor University who also writes about labor union policy and politics says, “I’d place a bet that this doesn’t bode well for public sector unions”.

Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, an assistant professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University says, “in order for the public sector labor movement to recover, they’d have to pretty substantially change the model they’re operating under… one strategy is to become much more service-oriented”.