BEMIDJI -- Local education unions are beginning to determine what kind of results have followed a U.S. Supreme Court decision that altered the way they can collect fees.
During the Bemidji Education Association teacher awards earlier this school year, Association President Jason Koester informed the auditorium full of educators that their local teachers union was still going strong despite the court’s decision. While other education unions are also fairing well, another is still uncertain of the full ramifications from the change.
“Most people think the union is about negotiating the contract -- that’s one small part of what the union does,” Koester said during a recent interview. “The No. 1 thing that the unions do is we advocate for our students and our fellow teachers.”
Before the court’s decision on Janus v. AFSCME, which stands for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, unions representing state and public employees in more than 20 states could collect dues from both members and non-member employees. The argument was that even if an employee was not a member of a union, that employee still derived benefits from the existence of the union, such as when it comes to collective bargaining. Because of that, non members still had to pay union dues, although not as much as an actual member.
With the Janus decision, however, the court determined that requiring employees who are not actually members of the union to pay dues would be a violation of the First Amendment, which guarantees the freedom of speech. The court issued its decision on the issue June 27, 2018.
Of the nearly 400 teachers who serve the Bemidji School District, more than 99 percent of them were already members of the union, meaning there wasn’t a lot of non-member union fees to lose.
One of the concerns about the court’s decision, however, was that it would incentivize employees to drop their memberships altogether since they could receive coverage from the unions without having to pay anything. There was a precedent for the concern. Koester said that before the Supreme Court’s decision, states that had already transitioned to a “right to work” system saw roughly a 10 percent drop in union memberships.
In spite of that, Koester said he didn’t really worry about losing memberships from teachers already in the teachers association. He did, however, wonder how the decision would impact incoming teachers who were new to the district. As it turned out, Koester said the new teachers still have been largely receptive to becoming members.
“We’re getting out; we’re talking to our members; we’re letting them know what the union’s really about,” Koester said.
Other education unions are still uncertain about the full effect of the change following the court’s decision.
Jill Hanson is the chief steward of the Bemidji branch of the Minnesota School Employees Association, which advocates for employees such as paraprofessionals and secretaries. Hanson said typically 60 percent of the employees in the district eligible for the union were members and 40 percent were non members.
Unlike the Bemidji Education Association, which has nearly full membership, The Minnesota School Employees Association could potentially feel the loss of the union fees that non-members no longer have to pay.
In spite of that, Hanson said they’ve been more proactive about getting out and talking to their various district employees about becoming members and supporting the union.
“I think it’s going to take another year or two to really know,” Hanson said about the effect of the Janus decision.
The union representing Bemidji State spent time preparing for the court’s decision before it ever came around. Now that the decision is more than a year old, a union representative said they are still in a healthy place, despite some of the concerns that existed beforehand.
The Inter Faculty Organization represents the professors, coaches, counselors and librarians at BSU, as well as more than 4,000 employees across the state. Jonathan Bohn of the IFO said they’ve seen a small handful of people decide to leave the union but more than 200 new members join statewide.
Bohn said he couldn’t speak to whether the influx of new members was enough to compensate for the revenue they are no longer able to collect from non-member dues, but he did say they are in a better financial spot than they anticipated.
“We are are healthier financially than we had planned for,” Bohn said. “We’re proud of the new members that we’ve been able to recruit and we feel confident with the resources that we have moving forward.”