Teachers unions are increasingly using strikes as a bargaining tactic in the wake of the Supreme Court's landmark ruling that allows public sector dissidents to opt out of paying union dues.
West Virginia is in the midst of a statewide teacher walk-out to protest legislation that would allow for more charter schools and other non-union organizations in the state. The strike is the second from the West Virginia Education Association in as many years after it parlayed a statewide walkout from Feb. 22 to March 7 in 2018 to receive 5 percent pay raises. The teachers union in Oakland, Calif., meanwhile, announced that it would begin its own strike on Thursday after walking away from the bargaining table with the school district over pay raises.
The pair of strikes comes shortly after teachers in Denver and Los Angeles caused mass shutdowns. Both unions eventually returned to the table amid days-long strikes, receiving concessions on pay raises, as well as limiting class sizes. Teachers at two Chicago charter schools have also held strikes to win pay raises.
Some labor watchdogs say the strikes reflect a new reality for organized labor following the Supreme Court's Janus decision in June. The landmark 5-4 ruling declared that policies that force government workers to pay union dues or fees to labor unions are unconstitutional. Patrick Semmens, spokesman for the National Right to Work Foundation, which argued the Janus case before the high court, sees a link between drastic steps, such as strikes, and the voluntary membership system.
"There's no question that before Janus teacher union officials took much of the rank-and-file for granted, and now without dues payments being mandatory union officials are scrambling to attempt to justify the dues their members are paying," Semmens told the Washington Free Beacon. "Part of that response seems to be a ramping up of their hate-the-boss rhetoric coupled with strikes that hold taxpayers and students hostage to union boss demands."
Labor organizations argued that mandatory dues and fees were necessary to maintain labor peace in the public sector. Justice Elena Kagan echoed that argument in her dissent, saying that allowing employees to opt out would hurt union finances and lead to disruptions. Forcing employees to contribute to labor organizations was necessary to "facilitate peaceful and stable labor relations."
"Public employee unions will lose a secure source of financial support," she said of the majority decision. "Across the country, the relationships of public employees and employers will alter in both predictable and wholly unexpected ways."
Michael Lotito, a management-side attorney at Littler Mendelson and co-chairman of Workplace Policy Institute, said the reliance on strikes, rather than continuing to bargain for concessions, demonstrates a more hard-headed approach to labor relations. A mass walk-out is the easiest way for unions to gain visibility among their members and the general public. When state and city governments reward a striking union to appease frustrated parents, neighboring labor organizations take note—as do their own members, who see the effectiveness of belonging to a labor group. Unions are particularly effective, Lotito said, at using "the message [that] it's all about the children," rather than pay raises and funding increases even as school districts face "scant resources, poor educational results, and pension liabilities."
"I think Janus does have something to do with it," Lotito said. "The union has to be visible and perceived as providing value to their members who they cannot take for granted."
Not every labor watchdog is convinced that Janus has played an important role in the spread of strikes. Peter List, a former union organizer who now works as a labor consultant, said that public sector unions, particularly in education, have been growing more radical over the years. Chicago teachers used a strike to win key concessions from Democratic mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2012. He said new technology has made labor unrest inevitable, as organizers harness social media and their own websites to wage "constant campaigns." The environment lends itself to bolder action than that of earlier generations meeting at union halls or break rooms to generate interest in walkouts.
"Through union newsletters, emails and social media, unions can conduct a ‘constant campaign' with their members. As such, there has been a ‘radicalization' of sorts coming since before Janus," List said in an email.
Not every state is ripe for the kind of mass unrest caused by strikes. New York attempted to quell massive worker uprisings in the latter half of the 20th century by taking aim at union pocketbooks. State law prevents unions from receiving automatic dues deductions during a strike, which leaves unions more committed to the bargaining table, according to Ken Girardin, a labor policy expert at the pro-free market Empire Center. He said that policy—as well as the state's already union-friendly contracts—has helped to foster labor peace in the public sector.
"Under New York Law unions can lose their automatic dues deduction privilege if they go on strike," he said. "A strike could be financially damaging to the union. In the past we've seen unions where more than half of members stopped paying if it's not being taken automatically."