The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in a 5-4 decision that public sector union employees can choose not to pay union dues or fees, a move that could damage union finances and limit their political clout.
In Pennsylvania, and nationally, teachers unions could bear the brunt of the court’s ruling.
There are 142,374 active members of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. The number balloons to 180,371 when counting retirees, substitutes, and other smaller categories of members.
Those numbers make PSEA one of the Commonwealth’s largest union bulwarks. Its active members represent about 48 percent of the state’s public-sector union employees, and roughly one fifth of the state’s estimated 665,000 total union workers.
PSEA represents another 6,380 employees who have opted out of full union membership and instead pay a lower “fair share” fee. The Supreme Court decision disallows those fees, meaning public sector employees can now decide to pay nothing to the union that represents them.
The American Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, has another 25,642 active members, and 1,948 employees paying a “fair share” amount.
Conservative groups cheered the decision as a triumph for free speech.
Lead plaintiff Mark Janus, who works for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, argued that public employees shouldn’t have to contribute to unions that lobby for politicians or policies that they oppose.
“I’m thrilled that the Supreme Court has restored not only my First Amendment rights, but the rights of millions of other government workers across the country,” said Janus, in a statement. “So many of us have been forced to pay for political speech and policy positions with which we disagree, just so we can keep our jobs.”
Keith Williams, a former teacher from Adams County, Pennsylvania, also applauded the ruling. He left his union in 2001 because he felt its advocacy for increased spending and its support of Democratic candidates clashed with his values.
“I just could not in good conscience continue to be a part of it,” said Williams, who recently quit teaching to join Americans for Fair Treatment, an advocacy group that opposes “fair share” arrangements.
Union backers say the decision will allow some public sector employees to benefit from the wages and conditions their unions negotiate without paying for the cost of that work.
“The decision deprives unions of any financial support from non-members who nonetheless benefit from union representation and collective bargaining to improve wages, benefits, and working conditions,” said Keystone Research Center Executive Director Stephen Herzenberg and Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center Director Marc Stier in a joint statement.
The open question is how much this decision will handcuff labor unions or reduce their substantial political clout.
Moving forward, public employees such as teachers will have to opt in to union dues. For instance, PSEA teachers contribute about $800 a year in dues, according to the union.
If enough members choose not to pay, it could hamper the union’s ability to organize and limit the time and money it can spend on political causes. Teachers unions typically back Democratic candidates for office, and contributed significantly to Governor Tom Wolf’s 2014 election campaign. They’ve also lobbied consistently in Harrisburg for increased state education funding, a deemphasis on standardized testing, and limitations on school choice initiatives.
In fiscal year 2017, PSEA spent $2.8 million on political activities and lobbying, according to reports filed with the U.S. Department of Labor.
Less powerful unions could lead to less potent advocacy, and leave some Democrats groping for campaign dollars and organizational muscle.
Jerry Jordan, head of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, brushed off concerns that the Wednesday ruling will torpedo union membership.
“I believe that this decision has helped to motivate union members,” Jordan said at a Wednesday rally of union organizers that rippled with defiance.
Keith Williams of Americans for Fair Treatment, however, thinks unions are in for a wake-up call. He believes they’ll need to do more to prove their worth to members, both as bargainers and as political agnostics. He expects there will be more defections if local unions don’t moderate their ideological leanings.
“There were many union members who were not happy with the political stances the state and national union have taken,” Williams said of his time as a teacher.
One study estimated public sector union membership in Pennsylvania would drop eight percent after the Supreme Court decision. Another study looked at the fallout after Wisconsin and Michigan outlawed “fair share” fees, and found that teacher-union membership fell 52 percent and 21 percent respectively in those states.
It could be a while, though, before Pennsylvania teachers and their unions know which way the memberships winds are blowing, according to Elizabeth Stelle, director of policy analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank.
“We’re still in the process of how this will eventually trickle down and affect teachers directly,” she said.
The new precedent established Wednesday by the Supreme Court will have to first be applied to a similar lawsuit filed in Pennsylvania by teacher Greg Hartnett of the Homer Center School District, which is now in U.S. District Court.
From there, teachers will have to make individual decisions about union membership. Some contracts lay out certain time periods when teachers can forfeit their union status, said Stelle, typically when an old pact is about to expire.