Is This Supreme Court Decision The End Of Teachers Unions? : NPR Ed The Janus decision will hurt public sector unions' finances and membership nationwide. What happens now?

Is This Supreme Court Decision The End Of Teachers Unions?

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Before Justice Kennedy's retirement was announced, there was some other big news out of the court - a ruling that will reverberate through America's schools. The justices said that public sector unions, including teachers' unions, can no longer collect fees from nonmembers to help cover collective bargaining costs. Some workers oppose their union's politics and say they shouldn't have to pay. The court agreed. NPR's Cory Turner reports on what this means for the future of teachers' unions.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: First, there's the financial hit.

CELINE MCNICHOLAS: The union is going to continue to be required to represent all workers whether they are members or nonmembers.

TURNER: Celine McNicholas is director of labor law and policy at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

MCNICHOLAS: And they're obviously going to have to do so with fewer resources as a result of the decision.

TURNER: True, but these fees, once required of teachers who don't want to join the union, make up a small piece of the pie, says Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the nation's largest teacher's union, the National Education Association or NEA.

LILY ESKELSEN GARCIA: Three percent of NEA's budget are from fee payers - just a very, very tiny part.

TURNER: The real threat may be to dues paying membership. Nearly half of states allow unions to collect fees from nonmembers. And in these states, NEA membership is far stronger than it is in states without fees.

NAT MALKUS: These states have 44 percent of all public school teachers, but they have nearly 70 percent of active NEA members.

TURNER: Nat Malkus of the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute says agency fees actually boost membership. In the past, he says, teachers had a choice between the union or this opt-out fee which is often about two-thirds the cost of dues. So hypothetically, over the course of a year, that could be...

MALKUS: Either a thousand dollars in union dues or $650 in agency fees.

TURNER: Since membership comes with other benefits, too, many teachers simply chose to become members. But now...

MALKUS: That choice becomes to pay either a thousand dollars in dues or nothing.

TURNER: A few states have already been through something like this. In Michigan, lawmakers scaled back bargaining rights and ended agency fees. Katharine Strunk, a professor at Michigan State University, compared what happened next to what was happening with unions in other states.

KATHARINE STRUNK: In the three years after the reform, the state NEA lost about 21 percent of its members.

TURNER: In Wisconsin, the losses were even bigger. In 2011, lawmakers there dramatically scaled back bargaining rights and cut fees for nonmembers. As a result, membership in the Wisconsin NEA dropped more than 50 percent. Ron Martin is a teacher and president of that affiliate and says he hears this a lot.

RON MARTIN: Well, why should I pay the dues? I'm going to get whatever you guys work hard for me anyways.

TURNER: In response, Martin says, the union doubled down on training and support for teachers.

MARTIN: We had to really shift our thinking.

TURNER: The NEA's Eskelsen Garcia says nationally, the union's trying to send a focused message, the same one she heard years ago as a teacher in Utah - that the union's fighting for...

ESKELSEN GARCIA: Class size reduction, technology and better textbooks for our kids. And those were all the things I needed. And I signed up.

TURNER: No one in this story believes this is the end of teachers' unions, but most do agree unions will be smaller and forced to adjust. One last question is, what does all this have to do with the recent teacher walkouts? After all, they happened in states that already had strict union limits. Again, here's Nat Malkus of AEI.

MALKUS: What you see in the red state strikes was teachers fed up and unions not being strong enough to return to teachers raises and pension reforms that were acceptable to them.

TURNER: Now unions in blue states will likely weaken, too, making it harder for them to win important concessions. And that could mean more teachers feeling frustrated and willing to protest with or without a union. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington.

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