By Vann Prime
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Baltimore Sun.
Freedom of choice, the right to choose — that’s what the United States is about. It’s a central premise of our polity and a major reason why millions of people have streamed to the U.S. for centuries.
That is why, as a public schoolteacher, I was appalled that, before the landmark Supreme Court decision Janus v. AFSCME on June 27, 2018, teachers’ unions forced thousands of American educators to pay dues, even if they were not union members. Those teachers had no control over where their money went; which educational, political and social issues the unions backed with those funds or, most importantly, which misguided, politicized policies unions funded.
However, that changed five years ago this June with Janus.
Janus was a monumental victory for teachers’ freedom of choice. Before Janus, unions in 22 states forced educators to pay so-called “fair-share” or “agency” fees, even if teachers were not union members. In Janus, however, the Supreme Court ruled that unions cannot force public employees to pay fair-share fees because those compulsory dues violated employees’ First Amendment rights.
As a result of Janus, millions of American educators are now free to dissociate themselves entirely from teachers’ unions. They are no longer coerced against their wills to fund causes and ideas they disagree with.
Nevertheless, membership growth of public sector unions, including teachers’ unions, has remained essentially flat, according to the Manhattan Institute. This belies the expectations of both union supporters and opponents, who either threatened or promised that the decision would bleed teachers’ unions of much of their membership and funding.
The big question is: Why didn’t union memberships plummet and their revenues decline?
First, five years after the decision, most teachers are still simply unaware of Janus and the choices available to them. In economic terms, most educators are “rationally ignorant” vis-à-vis legal decisions like Janus. Like most hardworking professionals, teachers are busy with thousands of daily concerns. They often have their students, autocratic administrators, centrally directed lesson plans, ridiculous bureaucratic requirements and demanding parents — in addition to their own children, families and personal lives — to contend with. Neither legal decisions from the Supreme Court, nor where their dues are going, are daily priorities. for most.
Next, following the Janus decision, teachers’ unions immediately went into siege mode. Unions feared not only a loss of membership but a concomitant loss of power and, especially, money.
After the decision, teachers’ unions did their best to make it difficult for their paying members to leave in my experience. For example, after Janus, my state teachers’ union required educators expressly to write formal letters demanding the cancellation of their membership. Although this seems trivial, the unions realized that most teachers would not take the initiative to draft a letter.
Finally, the unions conditioned most public schoolteachers to think there was no alternative to union membership. It’s a brilliant, invidious scheme.
Independent educators who disagree with even a portion of the unions’ agenda need to realize they are funding a megalithic, authoritarian entity working against their consciences, insulting their professionalism, and damaging their students’ interests.
Consequently, on this fifth anniversary of the Janus decision, it is essential to make teachers aware of the power and freedoms Janus granted them. The Supreme Court accorded them the freedom to choose their affiliations and representations. For educators of all backgrounds and political persuasions, if the unions do not represent their views and values, there are alternative nonpolitical, nonunion associations. These groups offer better benefits than the bloated educators’ unions, including far more generous liability insurance, without the teachers’ unions’ disdain for educational common sense, or radical politics.
One of the best alternatives is the Association of American Educators (AAE). AAE is the United States’ largest nonunion organization of teachers. AAE is a nonpartisan group that works directly on behalf of teachers and, most importantly, the interests of their students. Moreover, AAE membership provides superior benefits to those of teachers’ unions at a fraction of the cost of union dues.
If educators genuinely want freedom of choice, they should cancel their union memberships and choose AAE. And if they look for the source of this freedom to choose, they can look back five years to the momentous Janus decision.
Vann Prime is a teacher at Mt. Hebron High School in Howard County.