ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Ryan Fiereck received a phone call earlier this month from a telemarketer who was very curious about his political learnings and feelings toward his state teachers union, Education Minnesota.
Reading through a number of scripted statements, the woman began to assess his level of allegiance to the union.In response to one of her final questions — “Instead of paying fees to Education Minnesota that fund political activities and a one-size-fits all approach to education policy, opting out means keeping your money in your community and advocating for solutions that are right for your students. It’s your paycheck. Shouldn’t it be your choice?” — Fiereck reiterated that he was still strongly committed to Education Minnesota.
Fiereck said the call included a lot of misinformation, which was frustrating to him. But when he asked the caller to identify who was sponsoring the survey, he didn’t get an answer.
The nonprofit news outlet MinnPost provided this article to The Associated Press through a collaboration with Institute for Nonprofit News.
These calls, along with billboards and emails — all encouraging teachers to drop out of their local and state teachers unions — have sprung up across the state in the wake of the June 27 Supreme Court ruling on union fees.
In siding with the plaintiff, Mark Janus, a child-support specialist in Illinois, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Janus v. AFSCME that public employees now have the right to fully opt out of paying membership dues to labor groups that collectively bargain on their behalf. Before, they had been required to pay “fair share” or “agency” fees, at a minimum. Those who wanted to access the full package of union benefits had the option to pay full membership dues.
Janus had argued that being forced to pay any level of fees to his union violated his right to free speech, by forcing him to support a union that advocates for things he opposes.
But union supporters — Education Minnesota being chief among them, locally, with more than 90,000 members — see it as a serious assault on the working class.
“The decision is exactly what we expected. We knew it was going to be an example of wealthy elites and corporations trying to rig the economy to make it harder for working people to get ahead. That’s really what it’s about,” said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota in an interview earlier this month. “Our big challenge is going to be pulling back the curtain for our members who are getting these phone calls and saying, ‘These are the people who are calling you. And they’re the same people who have an agenda to continue to deepen divides in society. They’re the ones who are creating divisions along religious, economic and racial lines.’”
According to Education Minnesota, only 5 percent of its 94,638 members opt to pay “fair share” fees. The rest are full members.
Full union member fees, collected by local teachers unions, typically run under $1,000 per year and are automatically deducted from teachers’ paychecks. Those who opt to only pay “fair share” fees generally only save a couple hundred dollars, at most. But the Janus decision means those who opt out fully could end up saving a more sizable chunk of income.
That saving, however, comes at a much higher cost, said Carmen Barbone, a high school English teacher in the Shakopee Public Schools district of 24 years.
“With the Janus decision, it feels like the union is going to be weakened and a school district can then make a decision based on economics, rather than what is best for students,” she said. “I think that’s the worst and most frustrating part for me.”
Barbone is actively involved as a negotiator for her local teachers union, the Shakopee Education Association. She adds that one of her biggest concerns about the outcome of the Janus case is that it may pit teachers against one another, as those who opt to save $800 a year in membership fees still benefit from the contracts that their local unions negotiate on their behalf, as well as many of the same benefits afforded to dues-paying members.
“I worry about a divisive work environment and hope teachers will still understand the value of their union and remain members despite having a choice. Everyone would like to save $800 in dues, but the cost of losing our union is much more damaging.”
Playing out her worst-case scenario, Barbone said if unions were to dissolve completely, so would the protections that she depends on. For instance, job protections that prevent her principal from replacing her with two less experienced teachers for less pay, while navigating the district’s current budgetary issues.
Russell Packard, a former music teacher of 22 years who now works as a teaching assistant in the St. Paul Public Schools district, also views the Janus decision as a huge blow to the teaching profession.
Now given the option, he worries that younger teachers may choose to opt out of paying union dues, since they’re “not earning much money when they’re starting” and they’re trying to pay down college debt. That decision, while understandable, would be shortsighted, he said.
“They may not know how important the union will be to them in the future. As young teachers, they feel they’re immortal, nothing’s ever going to happen to them,” he said. “I’m afraid that membership will fall; and as a result, over the long run, teachers’ working conditions and wages will not improve and keep up with the times and there will be less and less quality teachers attracted to the profession.”
Richard Rosivach, a social studies teacher at Irondale High School in the Mounds View Public Schools district who just completed his 20th year of teaching, said the Janus outcome was no surprise. But he’s disappointed — not only because of the implications for unions, but also because he thinks “the court should respect precedent.”
Currently, he’s not in any leadership roles with his local or state teachers unions. But in years past, he’s served on the governing board for Education Minnesota. He thinks unions will remain strong in Minnesota, despite the ruling, so long as unions continue to be responsive to newer members’ needs.
“I think we’ve done a good job in the last few years of recognizing that the interests of our newer members are not necessarily the bread and butter issues of traditional unionism,” he said. “A lot of the people who are going into teaching these days are really motivated by social justice. A lot of people going into teaching these days are really looking to the union to provide meaningful professional development for them. And to give them a home in education — not just a job. And I think that’s a value and a benefit that unions can really offer.”
Annaka Larson, a dual immersion Spanish teacher at an elementary school in the St. Paul Public Schools district, agrees that unions serve a critical role in building a sense of community that’s important, especially for young teachers, to feel a part of. Partly because “the emotional investment that teachers have in their jobs and in the mission of raising the next generation is huge,” she said.
When she started teaching 10 years ago, Larson said no one ever highlighted this benefit of joining the union. Today, it’s something unions cannot afford to overlook.
“I think every union is going to need to reach out — and not reach out via email, but via, ’Hey! How’s it going? Can I pop into your classroom and chat with you?’” she said. “It has to be face-to-face, interpersonal conversations. Because that’s what the union is at the most fundamental level.”
She’s involved in a couple of programs that the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, her local union, has advocated for during contract negotiations: a home visit program that compensates teachers for visiting their students before the school year starts to get to know them and their families, as well as an alternative conference model that brings all parents together throughout the year for progress reports on the whole class.
“Those have been the sorts of things that have come out of teachers getting to talk about what we see our students needing and then finding solutions that we can bring to St. Paul that will help our kids,” she said.
Leading up to the Janus decision, Gotham Research Group, an independent, New York-based research firm, conducted a nationally representative survey of 1,000 full-time traditional public school and public charter school teachers to assess their opinions about unions and the case being considered by the Supreme Court. The research firm consulted members of Educators for Excellence, a teacher-led education reform group, in writing the survey questions.
The survey shows that teachers are largely committed to their unions, but nearly 75 percent of union teachers indicated a disconnect between the policy decisions championed by their union and their own policy preferences. This sentiment rang true for a smaller sample of 50 Minnesota teachers as well.
Madaline Edison, executive director of Educators for Excellence-Minnesota, said that this disconnect can happen in a few different ways.
“It can show up in terms of climate and culture of unions,” she said. “Depending on the strengths of the union leadership and who shows up at those meetings, sometimes meetings can feel like it’s not a very inclusive space and it’s a few folks who’ve been around the longest who definitely have the strongest voice in conversations. It can be hard as a new teacher — or as a person who hasn’t gone to meetings before — to feel like your voice is heard in those settings.”
Beyond climate and culture, she said some teachers may have “concrete policy differences,” or different ideas about what they want to see in their contract, regarding things like compensation structures or disciplinary measures.
The findings of this survey resonate with Lars Lindqvist, a 4th-year English teacher at North High in the Minneapolis Public Schools district.
“From my perspective, I don’t feel the union goes to great lengths to involve people, actively. My local chapter (the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers) is close to my building. I could go any time,” he said. “But besides from an occasional email, I don’t really see a lot of involvement in my school, on a day to day level. And when you’re teaching, you can really get lost in it.”
The son of a teacher, he said he’s long been a supporter of unions, so he’s always been a full-paying member. But he said teachers unions will have to do a better job, moving forward, of selling teachers on why they should become full members if they want to remain strong.
“Not everyone will join like I did, just because they think it’s important,” he said.
Seeking to address some of the issues of inclusion and culture that she saw with the Minneapolis teachers union, Abbie Finger — an engineering and robotics teacher of nearly 15 years who started out in Chicago Public Schools and moved to Minneapolis Public Schools — recently ran to become president of her union. While she lost to Michelle Wiese, she still sees an opportunity for unions to shift their messaging to focus more on “joy and justice” — two principles she centered her campaign on.
“How do we foster that sentiment? Because the fear mentality is not what I think works,” she said. “I think that we could do a better job at instilling hope in our profession and finding ways to really tie into people’s positive emotional spaces — the collaboration, the culture, the hearing of all voice … at the table.”
Linda Hoekman, a physics teacher at Champlin Park High School in the Anoka-Hennepin School district, said she’s pleased with the Janus decision because “it gives me the freedom to choose whether or not I want to join the union.”
Currently, she only pays agency fees to her local union, she said. At one point in her teaching career, of over 20 years, she chose to be a full-paying union member, she said. But she didn’t get the support she needed when she turned to her union for support, she said, so she went back to just paying the minimum in dues.
She said she and her colleagues don’t really even talk about their membership levels. So she’s not aware of anyone else who’s an agency fee payer. Unless she has a change of heart, however, she’s already decided to opt out of paying union fees altogether, moving forward. In 2017, she paid about $700 in “fair share” fees, about $150 less than full members pay.
“I’m not saying that I won’t be part of the union,” she said. “I just know that, right now, I want to hear what they can do for me. I’m looking for them to turn to me . to encourage me to be with them. Right now they just seem so distant.”