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As threats to teacher unions rise, so does rhetoric from leaders


National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcìa delivered a fiery speech this morning to the more than 6,000 delegates at the organization’s 97th Representative Assembly in Minnesota. The NEA has a membership of around 3 million.

The NEA meeting comes six days after the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a devastating blow to teacher and other government unions. In its ruling in the long-awaited Janus case, the nation’s high court found government workers can't be forced to contribute to labor unions that represent them in collective bargaining.

With a 5-4 vote, the court's conservative majority undid the 41-year-old Abood v. Detroit Board of Education decision that allowed states to require public employees pay some fees to unions that represent them --  even if the workers chose not to join -- under the rationale such employees benefited from union-negotiated wages and benefits.

Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said:

We upheld a similar law in Abood v. Detroit Bd. of Ed., 431 U. S. 209 (1977), and we recognize the importance of following precedent unless there are strong reasons for not doing so. But there are very strong reasons in this case. Fundamental free speech rights are at stake. Abood was poorly reasoned. It has led to practical problems and abuse. It is inconsistent with other First Amendment cases and has been undermined by more recent decisions.Developments since Abood was handed down have shed new light on the issue of agency fees, and no reliance interests on the part of public-sector unions are sufficient to justify the perpetuation of the free speech violations that Abood has countenanced for the past 41 years. Abood is therefore overruled.

Twenty-eight states, including Georgia, enacted right-to-work laws that ban mandatory union fees, but public-employee unions draw their strength in numbers from states that do not, such as New York, California and Illinois.

With the Janus decision, employees in those states will now earn union-won benefits and salary hikes without having to pay any dues, which could eventually gut unions. 

That the 22 states permitting mandatory collection of fair-share union dues now can’t was emphasized in the dissent by Justice Elena Kagan. Describing her colleagues as “black-robed rulers overriding citizens’ choices,” she wrote:

There is no sugarcoating today’s opinion. The majority overthrows a decision entrenched in this Nation’s law—and in its economic life—for over 40 years. As a result, it prevents the American people, acting through their state and local officials, from making important choices about workplace governance...Over 20 States have by now enacted statutes authorizing fair-share provisions. To be precise, 22 States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico—plus another two States for police and firefighter unions.

With that background, here are some of Garcia’s comments to NEA representatives today: 

There’s something different about this moment in our history. Billionaires, like Betsy DeVos and the Koch brothers, have never been more embedded in political power. Billionaires are trumping the rights of working people to organize.

Billionaires are tearing families apart; forcing toddlers out of the arms of their mothers as they beg for asylum – for a place they can escape violence and persecution.

Billionaires are selling our public schools to charter chains.

Billionaires have placed themselves over the rest of us; they have no sense of servant leadership; Billionaires believe that they are our rulers.

They demand our silence. They demand we pretend. Instead of speaking out on racial injustice, they demand that we stand in silence and pretend that everything’s just fine.

There’s something different about this moment. These are dark days, but Martin Luther King reminded us, “…only when it’s dark enough can you see the stars.” And, oh my, we have seen true stars align. We have seen the people march and speak up and refuse to be silent and refuse pretend; we have seen the resistance rise –

In the past 18 months, how many of you right here in this room have made your voices heard for women’s rights? 18 months ago I was at the march! How many of you have stood with our Dreamers and immigrant families? How many of you have lifted your voices for racial justice? How many of you have fought for the dignity and acceptance of our LGBT communities?

And how many of you in the room stood proudly this year in a national Red for Ed Wave? You challenged politicians who pretended that educators had taken vows of poverty and obedience for the honor of working in our public schools.

Our Red Wave started in West Virginia! Where are you West Virginia! Then Kentucky! Then Oklahoma! Arizona! Colorado! North Carolina! – YOU spoke the powerful truth that we are fierce fighters who will stand up for ourselves and for our students and we will be heard!

There are stars that shine in this dark night. But I’m not sure that any shine brighter than our own fearless students. It’s still hard for me to fathom the tragic deaths of students and educators to gun violence in school after school after school. From our smallest kindergarten babies to college campuses – we mourn.

There’s something different about this moment. I feel something different in me, that I don’t like. Because I don’t always feel that love. I have worked over years to defeat bad politicians and bad legislation and called out bad actors… and I’ve never hated them. Before.

I have felt hate in in me this last year and a half, and I don’t like it. It doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel like me – It feels like I’ve lost something about who I pretend to be. 

And I’ve seen families who won’t talk to each other. I’ve seen my colleagues who never back down from a good debate – look at each other like they’re enemies instead of opponents on an issue. I feel like we’re in danger of all being sucked into an agenda that feeds off fear and hate. I feel like we’re in danger of losing something. And I want it back. I don’t want to turn into what I’m fighting. I don’t want to use fear and hate to win.

I heard a quote: You don’t win by destroying what you hate. You win by saving what you love.

I used that quote in a speech a few weeks ago, and a woman came up and said to me: Thank you, Lily, for quoting the Bible. And I said: Actually, it was the last Star Wars movie.

St. Luke. Luke Skywalker. It’s all good. A quote. A poem. We need something to remind ourselves that we’re fighting to save what we love.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.