Teachers Unions Scramble to Save Themselves After Supreme Court’s Blow

Mary Kruchinski and Don Carlisto, right, canvassed on behalf of the New York State United Teachers last month at the Albany home of the custodian Marsel Kovaci. They were trying to get educators to pledge their commitment to the union.

ALBANY — The team of teachers pulled up to the school custodian’s house on a steamy summer day hoping to close the deal. They had been there twice with no luck, and Marsel Kovaci was proving to be a hard sell.

He was a union agency fee-payer, meaning he had declined to join the union but was still obligated to pay union fees — obligated, that is, until the Supreme Court declared otherwise last month. With a salary half that of a teacher, the janitor suddenly had a decision to make. So Mary Kruchinski, a representative of the New York State United Teachers, wasted no time.

“What’s the best thing about your job?” she asked.

“The kids,” he said. “I try to keep things nice for them.”

“We wanted to talk about why it’s important to be a full part of the union,” Ms. Kruchinski said.

When the discussion moved to how much the switch would cost him, Mr. Kovaci disappeared into his house to retrieve his wife. Ms. Kruchinski shot her teammate a worried look.

Teachers’ unions across the country are facing such discussions as they deal with the fallout of the June 27 Supreme Court decision that now prohibits labor unions from automatically collecting fees from public workers who decline union membership. Janus vs. A.F.S.C.M.E. dealt a stinging blow to teachers’ unions in particular, which are projected to lose up to a third of their members.

It has become important fodder in the fight to confirm Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court because Democrats argue that past nominees’ solemn promises to abide by court precedent were belied by the majority’s vote to overturn past rulings in the Janus case.

More pressing for the teachers’ unions, the ruling jeopardizes a funding stream that has made them political heavyweights for decades. In that sense, Janus has been a rude awakening for the lumbering union giants that some say have lost touch with the educators they are supposed to lead.

“Since they’ve built up this big political muscle, organizing has been less necessary because they have money and power,” said Evan Stone, a founder of Educators for Excellence, a teacher-led advocacy organization. “This whole effort to reconnect is only happening because of Janus, and it should have been happening the whole time.”

The American Federation of Teachers and its state affiliates like the New York State United Teachers are hoping to counter Janus with aggressive “recommitment” campaigns. The union has focused on 18 states with the largest numbers of public employees. The day before the Janus decision came down, they reported that of the 800,000 members in those states, they had secured more than 500,000 membership cards over the past five months.

On a recent Saturday, 45 educators — bus drivers, adjunct faculty, teachers — attended a membership organizing institute in Albany’s union headquarters, preparing to fan out for door-knocking in the community. A smartphone app allowed them to access and share information about their potential recruits. But much of the training was focused on a skill that will be crucial for the union’s survival: listening.

“We have a harder conversation than someone who says, ‘Drop the union,’” said Megan O’Brien, the New York State United Teachers’s training director.

And the drop-the-union campaigns have been in full force since the Janus decision.

Conservative groups that bankrolled the Janus case have begun a nationwide push to inform public workers of their new rights to opt out. They have long argued that mandated agency fees infringed on the rights of public employees, who were unjustly forced to pay for political and policy advocacy that they did not agree with. Now, with the backing of the Supreme Court, the groups plan to make sure that no employees do so a day longer than they want to.

“This is a game-changer, a tremendous victory for worker freedom,” said Erica Jedynak, the New Jersey state director of Americans For Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group backed by Charles G. and David H. Koch.

Americans For Prosperity is among the organizations working with a Michigan-based conservative group, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, to focus on states that have high numbers of public workers, such as New York, New Jersey and California.

Within hours of the Janus decision, the organization set up its website, My Pay My Say, which allows public employees in all 50 states to obtain information about their new rights under Janus.

The Mackinac Center is planning to spend $10 million this year and $40 million to $50 million over the next two or three years on a “national awareness campaign.” The organization has already opened a national call center, staffed around the clock by 20 trained representatives, to help public employees opt out. It will also fund canvasses and literature campaigns across the country, said Lindsay Killen, the vice president for strategic outreach and communications at the Mackinac Center.

Addressing 3,000 members who convened in Pittsburgh for the national American Federation of Teachers conference this weekend, Randi Weingarten warned on Friday that conservative billionaires who had bankrolled the Mackinac Center were launching “bare-knuckle opt-out campaigns.”

“They know that working people gain strength in numbers,” she said. “And they know working people do better when they join together in unions. So the right wing is doing everything they can to stop us.”

To Ms. Killen, the Supreme Court has merely opened up a competition of ideals.

The unions, she said, “should be lauding what they can do on behalf of workers, and celebrating their choice” in the new Janus world.

Within minutes of the decision, Andrew Quell, a seventh-grade teacher, said an email from the Mackinac Center dropped into his inbox at school. But the teachers’ union had gotten to him first. He had already signed his renewal union card.

“We didn’t even question it,” Mr. Quell said. “Showing up to the table with strength in numbers got us to where we are now.”

His wife, Elizabeth Quell, a third-grade teacher agreed. “I know they’ll always have my back no matter what’s going on out there,” she said.

Despite such loyalty, teachers’ union leaders acknowledged that the Janus case has prompted some much-needed soul-searching.

Ms. Weingarten has called the Janus case a “cathartic moment” for the 102-year-old organization.

“People are really busy, so they outsource their power to their leadership,” she said in a recent interview. “What we’ve tried to do is change the culture to be more engaging. Because the power to have a better life comes with the power of relationships.”

The American Federation of Teachers is showing no signs of tempering its political activities. This week, the federation hosted its national conference, where the headliners included Hillary Clinton and Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, two potential presidential candidates in 2020.

The union does not use dues or agency fees to support particular political parties or candidates, a spokesman said. Those activities are paid for out of a fund that members voluntarily contribute to. The union does, however, have a separate fund, called a 527, that holds union dues that it could tap for other political activities.

While Mr. Stone of Educators for Excellence was disappointed in the Janus decision, he was not surprised by the rifts within the union that it exposed. The organization commissioned an independent, nationally representative survey of 1,000 teachers that found strong support for unions over all. But 72 percent of the respondents said their union represented their policy views only somewhat or not at all.

In recent years, there has been emphasis on what it means to be a union member, and less on what it means to be a teacher, he said.

National teachers’ unions have also lost touch over the years with the challenges of classroom teaching, such as seniority, class size, professional development and school discipline policies.

“They need to embrace a new era of education, where schools need to look different than they did 50 years ago when unions came to power,” Mr. Stone said.

Conservative groups view the recommitment campaigns as a form of coercion. The California educator Rebecca Friedrichs, who helped launch the Janus case, wrote in a recent opinion article that many teachers who oppose their unions “won’t leave them because teachers who exercise their Janus rights by opting out and paying nothing will be harassed more than ever.”

For his part, Mr. Kovaci, the Albany custodian, did not appear to be bullied. He said he was sold on the pitch that joining the union would help amplify his voice. He had recently become an American citizen, and he had children in public school.

Ms. Kruchinski left his home beaming.

“That,” she said, “is the American story.”

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