If the Supreme Court rules against workers in Janus vs. AFSCME, it will hurt children at a time when it's become shamefully commonplace for our government to abuse those of a tender age.
Pushing the Janus case to a compliant Supreme Court is the conservative movement's counterpunch against the collective power of working people. But as is so often the case, when rightwing billionaires take a swing at a progressive cause, they hit children too.
The case targets public employees – such as teachers, custodians, cafeteria employees, and daycare workers – and the so-called "agency" or "fair-share" fees they pay to their unions in 22 states.
The defendant, AFSCME, wants to preserve the union's right to charge the fees to workers who choose not to join but are still represented by the union in collective bargaining. The defendant contends all workers gain from the bargaining the union does for salaries and other benefits, so paying the fees is fair.
The plaintiff, Janus, argues these policies violate free speech because workers are forced to pay money to a group that advocates for causes they may not support.
A Blow to Teachers' Unions
There's little doubt a ruling in favor of Janus will weaken the power of public-sector workers to organize for the public good. The impact will be a particularly staggering blow to teachers' unions.
Teachers' unions will likely lose revenues due to workers who opt not to pay the fees, and fewer workers paying fees likely will lead to losses in membership.
An analysis by education reporter Madeline Will in Education Week notes leaked reports from the National Education Association and the California teachers union have revealed those organizations are likely anticipating large losses of revenue and members.
Will also points to an analysis of steep declines in teacher union strength in Michigan and Wisconsin after those states passed legislation that prohibited unions from collecting agency fees from non-members.
In a different article, Will finds strong evidence "teachers who do not belong to their unions see value in the organizations, but still say they would opt out of paying mandatory fees if given the choice."
What does this have to do with children?
Impact on Children
Because school teachers have become society's first responders, anything that diminishes their voices diminishes advocacy for children. Because public schools remain one of the few truly public institutions, the social and economic ills in society show up in schools first, when students come to school with signs of the ravages of poverty and malnourishment, lack of access to health care, and the stresses of living in homes where adults are hard pressed to make ends meet or family members are undocumented or incarcerated.
Teachers who've recently walked out of classrooms, shut down schools, and held huge rallies at state capitals in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado, Arizona, and North Carolina have showed the power of teacher voice. "They were not just fighting for their own self-interest," write Keron Blair and Jay Travis, the co-directors of Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a civil rights and public education advocacy group. "They were fighting for better schools. Their protests pulled back the curtain on decades of policy decisions that have stripped public schools of resources."
Teachers have engaged in these disruptions and won concessions without angering the general populace. Nearly two-thirds Americans approve of national teacher unions, according to a recent poll.
But the benefits of teachers' unions, and unions of all kinds, to the wellbeing of children go beyond the advocacy teachers engage in for their schools and their students.
Unions Are Good for Kids
A 2015 study found strong empirical evidence that unions may help children move up the economic ladder.
According to the study, the New York Times reports, "Children born to low-income families typically ascend to higher incomes in metropolitan areas where union membership is higher. The size of the effect is small, but there aren’t many other factors that are as strongly correlated with mobility."
The positive impact of unions on children's upward mobility isn't exclusive to low-income children, the Times reporters note, and they extend beyond families with union workers to nonunion families too.
"We’ve seen the strength of unions in action, particularly for working women and mothers like us," write two California educators in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Daily News. Because unions have fought and won concessions on benefits like employee guaranteed sick time, parents can care for their sick children and attend teacher conferences.
Because of union advocacy, they note, "African-American union members today earn 14.7 percent more – and Latino union workers 21.8 percent more – than their nonunion counterparts. And union membership is even more beneficial for women of color. African-American women in unions earn an average of $21.90 an hour while nonunion women earn $17.04. For Latina union members, the difference is even greater."
All About Politics
Many have noted the Janus case has more to do with politics than principles.
The point of contention in the case is actually already a settled matter. A previous case in 1977, Abood vs Detroit Board of Education, supported union agency fees for the very same reasons the Janus defendant is arguing. But activist judges appointed to the court by Republicans have been signaling for years their ambition to overturn the 1977 decision should the right case come along.
Also, the Janus case has been financed by a small group of foundations with ties to powerful rightwing billionaires including the Koch Brothers and the DeVos family who want to weaken the bargaining power of all workers, shred the safety net, abolish the minimum wage, and privatize the public sector, including our schools. They're attacking public sector workers because it's the sector with the highest union density, and curtailing union clout will have a direct impact on electing fewer progressive candidates to political office.
Swing at Workers, Hit Children
As the Times article points out, "It is well established that unions provide benefits to workers – that they raise wages for their members (and even for nonmembers). They can help reduce inequality."
Unions are very effective at pushing the political system to deliver policies like a higher minimum wage. And as we've seen with the results of the teacher walkouts this spring, the collective power of teachers can be very effective at forcing state governments to spend more on schools and other government programs.
The Janus case represents the culmination of the conservative movement's decades-long effort to strike at the heart of workers' ability to organize, as well as their long march to stack the Supreme Court with an arch-conservative majority that will prove pliant to their wishes.
As they drive forward with their eyes on this long-desired prize, children are the collateral damage, caught under the treads of this slow-moving, deadly machine.