For years the threat of an extreme, anti-worker Supreme Court case, that ultimately became Janus vs. AFSCME, loomed over the heads of public employee unions around the country. On June 27, the Supreme Court handed down a decision that might have been devastating. Five months later, however, the Oregon Education Association is stronger and more connected than ever.
While teachers, firefighters, homecare workers and other public servants are no stranger to these anti-union attacks, the new national landscape in which cases like Janus have garnered high-powered political support threatened to challenge public sector unions like never before.
There is no denying that this decision was a blow to public employee unions, making it more difficult for educators to come together to advocate for themselves. Educators around the state were concerned – what would this mean for us? For our students?
It turns out that being a part of the union has always been and continues to be important to educators. Around the state, educators, leaders, and OEA staff are reporting renewed enthusiasm for the union this year. Instead of drops in membership, many OEA locals have actually reported growth.
Membership rolls have swelled since the Janus decision because educators see value in their union membership and are choosing to remain or become a part of their local association. Members who have historically not been engaged with the association are volunteering to be building representatives, joining bargaining teams, attending union events, and connecting with each other. On the North Coast, at least nine local associations have 100 percent membership. From Astoria to Scappoose, every single educator has chosen to be a union member. This trend continues around the statewide organization — OEA has seen increased membership this school year all around Oregon.\
While even the most conservative estimates projected OEA would lose a percentage of our membership after the Janus decision, the number of new members who have signed up this year have more than made up the balance. Nearly 600 former fee-payers have become members, and over 90 percent of all eligible educators in the state are active OEA members. Several new locals are in the process of affiliating with OEA, another marker of this increased excitement and commitment to unionism.
The value of membership is clear; in states where more public employees remain members of the union, salaries are higher for all employees because the union has the power to negotiate from a position of strength.
Unprecedented organizing efforts within our union over the last two years have resulted in tens of thousands of one-on-one conversations, connecting members with each other in locals across the state. Educators have stepped up to protect themselves, their colleagues, and retain their power and voice. As individuals, we have a limited impact on decisions that are made in our districts. Coming together as members of a strong union is the best way to have a seat at the table to fight for students and good working conditions.
Through these ongoing listening sessions — called “Engage events” — members of local associations are able to share their priorities and ideas to help our organization best serve them. In school buildings, community college campuses, bus barns, cafeterias, and district offices, educators are discussing improvements that should be made to students’ learning conditions, educators’ working conditions, and funding for public education. One-on-one conversations provide opportunity to share what the union is working on and for members to give input.
Our membership remains strong in the wake of the Janus decision, but that hasn’t stopped anti-union groups from their mission to break us down and silence us. Since the beginning of this school year, OEA members have been subject to misleading and harassing communications from the Freedom Foundation and other anti-union organizations at their homes and in their work emails.
Their strategy to weaken educator unions is transparent — anti-union groups work constantly to weaken and limit workers' rights. They've even said that their goal is to "destroy unions." The Freedom Foundation says that dropping your union membership will save you money, but without a strong union, no one will be there to advocate to improve your salary and benefits. In the long term, your union dues pay off over and over — in states with weakened unions, educators earn far less money each year, and have bare bones retirement plans, and funding for services to students is minimal.
These efforts haven’t tricked Oregon educators. Educators know union dues allow the union to effectively negotiate with school districts and community colleges to secure salary, benefits, and working conditions. When more members choose to be a part of the union, we can achieve stronger contracts.
Anti-union organizations say educators are overpaid and don't work enough, but they have never set foot in our classrooms or school buildings and have no idea who we are or how committed we are to the work we do.
What lies ahead
Though it seems we have overcome the threat to our collective voice and power, we now must use our strength as we fight to improve public education. There are still many hurdles to face, and educators around the country are prepared to take drastic measures to ensure that students are given the education experience they deserve.
Beginning in February of 2018, educators in West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Kentucky walked out of their classrooms in protest of the abysmal conditions in which they and their students were expected to teach and learn. Photos of crumbling walls and ceilings, 30-year-old textbooks, and broken desks made a splash on the internet for months. Hundreds of stories were told by educators working two — or more — jobs just to be able to afford to live, while still bankrolling their own classroom supplies.
These well-publicized strikes became the cornerstone of the #RedforEd movement, which began a nationwide calldown for better public education funding. No longer were educators content to stand by as their budgets were slashed, salaries frozen, and benefits diminished. Of the five major statewide walkouts, each ended with a pay increase, increased school funding, or both.
Oregon is no stranger to budget cuts. Decades of underfunding have left our public schools with too few teachers and support staff, unsafe working conditions, and stagnant pay. Our classrooms are sometimes so full that students don’t even have a proper place to sit. Educators spend so much time managing behavior that they can’t even do their jobs. Many have considered moving or commuting over the border to Washington state, where educators just won a big pay increase and an injection of funding for their schools.
Educators in Oregon are facing a great opportunity to change the tides for our public school system. Governor Kate Brown has made education funding a major priority, and in this year’s election OEA helped to elect more pro-public education legislators than ever before. We’ve also got the power of our united voice, tested and fortified by the challenges we have faced this year. We are a group of dedicated educators, 45,000 strong, and together we can build a greater future for ourselves and our students. 2019 will be a critical year for school funding in Oregon; it’s time to use our strength to give our students the resources they deserve.