by Seth Saavedra │Thursday, March 29th, 2018
Waiting to Exhale
With oral arguments for Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in the rearview, sideline speculation is in full swing.
As the legal frameworks allowing public-sector unions to collectively bargain differ from state to state, the full implications of - a seemingly imminent favorable - ruling for Mark Janus aren't clear.
New Mexico, as with many things, is a bit of an anomaly when it comes to our teachers unions. With high perceptions of influence, yet low levels of membership, our local chapters of the NEA and AFT remain important players on uneasy footing.
- 33 states require districts to engage in collective bargaining if teachers request to do so, generally through a majority vote for union representation;
- 11 states allow collective bargaining, but districts are not required to bargain even if teachers request it; and
- In the remaining seven states, collective bargaining is explicitly illegal. Teachers can still join professional associations, which are active in lobbying at the state level and interact with districts as a voice for teachers, albeit in less formal ways than collective bargaining.
Friendly to Unions but Not Many Members
The Land of Enchantment has quite favorable statute for public-sector unions. In fact, collective bargaining is not only allowed but required by law:
There is great value in collective bargaining, which provides a streamlined negotiation between labor and management. Unions fight for adequate compensation and safe workplaces, vital aspects to a healthy workforce.
There are also drawbacks. This streamlined negotiating diminishes the diversity of teacher voice, narrowing it to one or two technocratic issues. The resulting agreements use a jackhammer where a chisel works best. This constrains schools, stifles innovation, and directs energy to the lowest common denominator.
For example, why should all high schools schools in a district have the same start times or length of school day? And why, despite a mountain of evidence telling us of the negative impacts, do high schoolers still start so early?
Undoubtedly there is benefit in having some shared scheduling, but shouldn't our schools better represent the needs and diversity of students? The driving forces for these decisions should be the needs of students then staff. In that order.
For all the pushback I hear against standardized testing, I rarely hear critiques against what is largely a standardized school experience. I'll take standardized tests over standardized schools any day.
Implications for New Mexico
Despite the favorable statutory environment, at 41 percent, we have the lowest level of teacher unionization among all states that mandate collective bargaining. In this way, our teachers have already voted with their money and feet. With mounting evidence that collective bargaining does not improve teacher pay, this shouldn't be a surprise.
At the heart of Janus are agency fees, also known as "fair-share fees, paid by nonunion members to the union to cover the cost of collective bargaining on their behalf."
The loss of agency fees will most likely go unnoticed in The Land of Enchantment. As EIA reports:
Even so, with growing disenchantment with local union leadership, there remains fomenting pressure for a modern union platform.
New, Better Unions
The perceived power of our local teachers unions weighs heavy. In APS, six out of seven board members - overseeing a $1.34 billion budget - are union-backed. That’s control of $1.15 billion, for an average campaign contribution of $5,000 per member. Not a bad ROI.
In Santa Fe, Senate Majority Whip and Chair of the Legislative Education Study Committee (LESC), Mimi Stewart (D) carries water for NEA/AFT/ATF. She is also considered by many to be our most powerful legislator. And, as I reported, the testimony of a union leader is, more often than not, enough to frighten timid legislators back into line.
My hope is local teachers unions take this moment in time to reinvent themselves anew. Facing increased pressure to retain members and recruit Millennial/Generation Z membership, unions have the chance to completely redefine the status quo in education and address the current gulfs between collective bargaining agreements and student needs.
Lasting change isn't possible without a substantial shift in the beliefs and actions of our union leadership.