A Union That Has to Earn Its Members and Their Money Is a Union I Can Support

Jun 27, 2018 12:00:00 AM

by Zachary Wright 

It’s been quite a few days for the Supreme Court. First, they sided with anti-abortion right advocates in NIFLA v. Becerra. Then they upheld Trump’s Muslim Travel Ban. And most recently, in Janus v. AFSCME, the court ruled, in effect, that unions can no longer collect fees from non-union members, even though these non-members often benefit from the collective bargaining agreements fought for at significant cost by union leadership. I’m no lawyer, nor am I privy to the nuanced arguments and analyses of the Janus case. But I have been a member of a teachers union and have some experience with the educational landscape, both unionized and not. So here’s what Janus means to me, at least in the few hours after the ruling’s return. After the Muslim ban was upheld, [pullquote position="right"]I cannot trust this court to provide any sort of moral compass.[/pullquote] Indeed, it is not hyperbole to include that shameful decision alongside Dred Scott and Korematsu. As such, this court, which, it must be remembered, was illegally stacked by Mitch McConnell who refused to schedule hearings for President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, (so much for the conservative philosophy of strict interpretation of the constitution), has abdicated any benefit of the doubt. This case isn’t about upholding the sanctity of the first amendment. Striking out at labor unions is a tried and true page out of the conservative playbook, often at the behest of businesses and at the expense of workers. This isn’t a free speech issue, it’s about deregulation and power. It’s yet another example of today’s GOP placing profits over people.

The Silver Lining in It All

But there can be a silver lining amongst the gloom. Often, we take for granted, and under-value, that which we do not earn. Unions, perhaps, could have gotten overly accustomed to the money that filled their coffers in the form of mandatory dues, and thus have forgotten precisely for whom they are meant to advocate. In regards to the AFT and NEA specifically, the Janus case, while being a short-term misfortune, could perhaps create the opportunity to generate more unity amongst educational advocates, rather than resorting to the stale status quo that saw too many teachers unions, including my former representation here in Philadelphia, sow the seeds of discord along the lines of accountability, charter schools and seniority. In essence, without the mandatory fees, the unions may now feel compelled to speak with, rather than shout down, those of us who see teachers unions too often working for the benefit of themselves and their members, rather than fighting for what’s best for kids. Janus, to me, is yet another piece of horrible news in a week filled with horrible news. But hopefully, this is the moment when, at the specter of depleted treasuries, teachers unions seek to unify the power of the educational community, rather than stigmatizing those of us who share common goals, if not common means. Maybe a union that has to earn its members and their money, is a union I can support.

Zachary Wright 

Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating classes. Wright was a national finalist for the 2018 U.S. Department of Education's School Ambassador Fellowship, and he was named Philadelphia's Outstanding Teacher of the Year in 2013. During his more than 10 years in Philadelphia classrooms, Wright created a relationship between Philadelphia's Mastery Schools and the University of Vermont that led to the granting of near-full-ride college scholarships for underrepresented students. And he participated in the fight for equitable education funding by testifying before Philadelphia's Board of Education and in the Pennsylvania State Capitol rotunda. Wright has been recruited by Facebook and Edutopia to speak on digital education. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, he organized demonstrations to close the digital divide. His writing has been published by The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Citizen, Chalkbeat, Education Leadership, and numerous education blogs. Wright lives in Collingswood, New Jersey, with his wife and two sons. Read more about Wright's work and pick up a copy of his new book, " Dismantling A Broken System; Actions to Close the Equity, Justice, and Opportunity Gaps in American Education"—now available for pre-order!

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