Public sector workers could be in for dark days ahead. America awaits a Supreme Court decision that could deal a massive blow to their unions' ability to raise funds and retain members.
Yet in the midst of this potential crisis, major teacher strikes have hit West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and maybe Arizona. By suddenly flexing their muscles, teachers in the reddest of red states are showing their fellow public employees a possible path forward — even if the Supreme Court delivers a worst case scenario.
First, some background.
Whenever a majority of workers vote to form a union, labor law requires that union to bargain on behalf of every worker in the unit. (The unit could be a particular workplace, or workers at a cross-section of an industry, depending on the situation.) The union has to fight for the best possible deal for every worker in the represented unit, even if some of those workers aren't members.
In some states, workers who don't join the union that represents them still have to pay certain union fees. But lots of states have passed right-to-work laws, which undo this requirement. Union champions argue this creates a free-rider problem: Unions still have to bargain for everyone, but no longer get the resources they need to effectively do so. Unsurprisingly, wages are lower in right-to-work states than elsewhere.
That brings us to the aforementioned Supreme Court case, Janus v. AFSCME Council 31.
To make a long story short, Janus could turn the entire country into a right-to-work zone when it comes to public employees. Since the mid-century, national union membership has dropped from over 30 percent to around 10 percent. But public employees still have a membership rate of 34.4 percent versus the private sector's 6.5 percent. Worker advocates fear the Supreme Court, with its five-conservative majority, could use Janus to deal a crippling blow to the public sector's holdout of organized labor power.
This is where the teacher strikes come in.
On Monday, hundreds of schools in Oklahoma and Kentucky shut down, canceling classes for hundreds of thousands of students, as teachers rallied to protest low pay and poor public investment. Oklahoma teachers are among the lowest paid in the country, and have sent lawmakers scrambling to meet their demand for a $10,000 pay hike. Kentucky teachers are somewhat better off. But the state government is trying to privatize their retirement plans, sparking the unrest there.
Both protests were clearly inspired by West Virginia public school teachers, who walked off the job by the thousands in February, ultimately squeezing a 5 percent pay increase out of the state legislature.
Then there's Arizona, where pay is also terrible, and teachers are rallying for a 20 percent increase. Teachers wore buttons to the protest reading, "I don't want to strike, but I will."
The significance is that all of these states are right-to-work already. Kentucky became right-to-work last year, and Arizona way back in 1947. West Virginia passed its right-to-work laws in 2016, and Oklahoma did back in 2001. Teachers in these states were able to rally and successfully extract concessions, even when their unions had already suffered whatever damage Janus would inflict on public sector unions nationally.
In fact, they occasionally pulled it off outside the traditional union framework entirely: When the West Virginia teachers weren't satisfied with the initial deal their union struck with lawmakers, they stayed on the picket lines, resulting in a massive and unauthorized "wildcat" strike. Oklahoma teachers may do the same if their union organizers can't negotiate a proper deal.
There's also precedent here: As Georgetown University historian Joseph McCartin explained to Bloomberg's Josh Eidelson, more than 60 teacher strikes hit between 1945 and 1950. Like today, the educators demanded better pay and often protested without union support or legal protection.
In fact, as union power has declined, this sort of "alt-labor" organizing has often risen to take the helm. For example, the "Fight for 15" movement that's successfully raised pay in numerous cities and states has certainly had help from unions. But given the lack of union density in lots of service sectors like fast food, the movement has often had to organize outside typical union channels.
It's worth remembering that unions are stuck in the right-to-work paradox to begin with because labor law imposes requirements on them as well as on bosses. The point of labor law is to discipline both sides and prevent disputes between employees and employers from devolving into all-out war. But the nationwide assault on workers and unions is undoing that truce. And Janus could accelerate the process.
Eidelson, who has doggedly covered this issue, noted how this could play out:
If more moderate members decline to fund their unions, the remaining members could prove more eager for aggressive action. If unions can’t get the state to guarantee they can collect fees from everyone they’re representing, they could be more hesitant to give the state a guarantee that their members won’t strike. And if some unions give up their right to represent non-members and reboot as 'members-only' groups advocating just for those who pay dues, unions could end up in competition with one another, trying to outdo each other with more militant, demonstrative protests. [Bloomberg]
In fact, should the Supreme Court rule against unions, the very logic of the Janus case would also open up new avenues for unorthodox, and potentially massively disruptive, labor strategies.
Under no circumstances would nationalizing right-to-work rules for public employees be a good thing. But the sudden flood of teachers strikes shows that, if pushed far enough, workers can adapt.