How Teacher Strikes in Other States Help California Unions Make Their Case

Teachers are on the march.  Lashing out against low pay and what they see as paltry state spending on education, teachers in states including West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Arizona, and Colorado have made national headlines by walking off the job in unprecedented displays of statewide solidarity.[1]

And while there was no telling when and where the wave of teacher strikes will crest, there was no reason to expect grassroots, Facebook-driven walkouts to wash over California.  The reasons for this are simple: the states where teachers are striking are almost all “right-to-work” states, where workers do not have to join or contribute to a union in their workplace.  These “right-to-work” states stand in contrast with other states, such as California, which required public sector workers to pay agency fees that supported unions’ cost of bargaining and representation.  As a result, teachers in these “right-to-work” places generally have less bargaining power and lower wages and benefits.  And in two of the striking states—Oklahoma and West Virginia—state legislatures set teacher salaries.[2] It makes sense that in “right-to-work” states teachers and organizers led grassroots, Facebook-driven walkouts, whereas in states like California, which has historically had strong union power, this type of movement was less predictable.

In California, long established teachers’ unions continue to have support from a solidly Democratic Legislature.  And, in recent years, California voters passed and renewed a sizable tax increase, targeted for schools, when other states were cutting school funding.[3] Furthermore, contracts are negotiated independently in nearly 1,000 school districts across the state, which would make statewide strikes difficult to pull off.

Yet, with the U.S. Supreme Court rendering a decision in June 2018 that significantly weakens public employee unions, labor unrest in other states resonated in California.[4] It served as a harbinger of what could happen if unions here lost their clout, lost the gains made over the years in teacher pay, and if their benefits were rolled back.  The Court’s conservative majority ruled as most expected it to in Janus v. American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, holding that public sector workers in California and twenty-one other states will no longer be required to pay what are known as “agency fees,” which fund the unions’ costs of bargaining and representing them.

Previously, unions received these fees thanks to a 1977 Supreme Court decision (Abood v. City of Detroit Board of Education) which held that public-sector employees did not have to join the union and pay dues to support its political activities; but they do have to pay for services unions provide employees like collective bargaining and the filing of grievances.[5]  As Janusprevailed, Aboodwas overturned and a guaranteed revenue stream that unions have long taken for granted is now in jeopardy.  This outcome is forcing California teachers’ unions to do something they have not had to do for more than a half century—hustle to get teachers to voluntarily sign up as dues paying members.

Capitalizing on the News Cycle, for Now

As fate would have it, all the news footage of desperate teachers from other states walking picket lines has served as a compelling sales pitch to California teachers, at least for the short term.  “The first question I ask when I go around to school site meetings is: ‘Who is paying attention to what is going on in West Virginia and Kentucky?’” said Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA).  “Members who were disengaged are more engaged now.”  Teachers in those states are “at the fire’s edge of pushing back against austerity,” said Eric Heins, president of the California Teachers Association (CTA).

“California is not in the same place,” with a pro-union Legislature and governor, he said, but still, class sizes are large and the state is near the bottom in per-pupil spending.  And in places like the Bay Area and parts of Southern California, teachers cannot afford to rent or buy a house.  The implicit message to teachers: Sticking together will protect union members from the fate of states with weak unions, because “together we are strong; individually, we are vulnerable,” Heins said.

Unions, however, will not be able to thrive in the post-Janusworld on sales pitches alone.  They also need a wide member base that values the contracts they have won and trusts both state and local union leaders to represent their interests. Currently, about 90 percent of California’s 325,000 teachers pay full union dues, which averages $1,072 a year statewide, per person.[6] Of that amount, $656 goes to the CTAto pay for a combination of serving local unions and politicking: lobbying in Sacramento and contributing to candidates that the CTA’s State Council endorses.[7]  An additional $187, on average, goes to the National Education Association, the parent union in Washington, D.C.[8] On top of that, an average of $229 stays with the local union.[9]

Pre-Janus, roughly 10 percent of the state’s teachers paid only the required agency fees, an amount that is about two-thirds of full union dues.[10] It is those teachers, who right now only pay the required fees, that the CTA anticipated would stop paying entirely if Janusprevailed.  But the CTA warned local unions to anticipate losing an additional 10 percent of their members should the Supreme Court rule in favor of Janus.

The Fresno Teachers Association is one of the few locals that planned to seek an increase in dues this past spring as a precaution.  Jon Bath, lead contract negotiator for the union, said union leaders were confident that members would agree that “we have done a lot for our folks” with a new contract giving an 8.5 percent raise over three years.

But some warned the membership losses could be greater and point to Wisconsin, where the legislature stripped public unions of most collective bargaining rights in 2011; and then in 2014 abolished mandatory union fees.[11] Two years later, fewer than half of the state’s school districts had certified teachers’ unions.[12]

The chances that will happen in Democratically dominant California are remote, said Charles Taylor Kerchner, professor emeritus at the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University.  “Januswill not be the death knell of unions,” Kerchner said.  “Far from it. [But] that doesn’t mean it will not be a problem.”

Similar Challenges, Different Strategies

Janus has the potential to splinter teachers’ unions along generational and political lines, with looming concerns over rising pension costs and the CTA’s progressive positions on issues like immigration becoming flashpoints.  Interviews with union leaders across the state revealed that while there is widespread agreement on the challenges they face, the strategies for meeting those challenges are varied.

Consider the contrasting models of unionism in San Jose and Los Angeles.  For the San Jose Teachers Association, the emphasis is on collaboration, while UTLA thrives on confrontation with LA Unified’s superintendent and school board.

Two decades ago, San Jose teachers and the administration reached a deal to set aside two-thirds of general state revenue the district receives for teacher pay and benefits, and that ratio has remained in successive contracts.  Taking that key issue off the bargaining table cleared the way to focus on other issues.  San Jose Teachers Association President Patrick Bernhardt said that all but two of 1,700 teachers are currently members: “We have a productive partnership, with labor peace. We can solve little problems that would result in grievances in other places.”  But Bernhardt acknowledges he is anxious about life after Janus.  “In a world where every local constantly has to be prospecting for membership, it’s easier to organize around a crisis and fear—against a villain,” he said.  “I think about how can we organize around the positive work we do.  But it’s a harder argument to make.”

Caputo-Pearl and UTLA, whose members were working without a contract,[13]took a hardball approach, which included a boycott of faculty meetings and organizing a strike authorization vote.  “We’re building a fighting union, and that’s the kind of union that will attract and retain members post-Janus,” Caputo-Pearl said. “Educators in West Virginia organized and took risks. We will have to do the same.”

Tuned in or out of Touch?

Manuel Yvellez, a teacher in the Chula Vista Elementary School District and past president of Chula Vista Educators, the district’s local union, agreed that strong unions are needed—but was highly critical of the CTA.  He said its leadership was not adequately prepared for the post-Janusrealities and had in the past failed to deliver on promises to effectively lead negotiations at contract time.  “Many people say CTA is an expert in bargaining—I didn’t see that expertise,” said Yvellez, who describes himself as a “disrupter.” “They not only didn’t provide the expertise they advertised, they fumbled the ball.”

Yvellez also faulted the union for not focusing enough on bread-and-butter issues like threats to teacher pensions, and for taking sides on polarizing topics like immigration that could alienate teachers with more conservative views. “When you focus on [the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program] you just alienated 20 to 30 percent of teachers,” Yvellez said.  “They ask: ‘Why am I paying $100 a month to support a political cause I don’t believe in?’  I’ve heard that from a lot of teachers.”

Ed Sibby, a communications consultant for the CTA’s southern region, said the union’s stances on such issues reflect the view of its younger members, which he said would be more important than ever whenJanusprevailed.  “As we’ve spent time studying and talking with our younger members, we know that they are passionate about human rights—we have an annual equity and human rights conference,” Sibby said.  “It’s important that we let our younger members know where we stand.”

Allowing Dissent

“Change is tough, and CTA has had blinders about some big issues” like teacher tenure and creative union-district collaborations, said Julia Koppich, a consultant who has researched union reforms in California.  “It hasn’t been willing to consider some locals moving in different directions.”  One alternative voice is Teach Plus, a national nonprofit, with a chapter in Los Angeles, that provides training and research opportunities to teachers for future leadership roles, whether in districts, charter schools or unions.  Members, like Josh Brown, a Los Angeles Unified special education teacher, have challenged union orthodoxy.[14]  But Brown and Bootsie Battle-Holt, another Teach Plus fellow who also serves in UTLA’s House of Delegates, said that what unites teachers with the union is stronger than what divides them.  “No matter what happens with Janus, we will really want to have a strong union,” Battle-Holt, the 2016-2017 LAUSD and LA County Teacher of the Year, said.

[1]Cory Turner, Claire Lombardo, and Erin B. Logan, Teacher Walkouts: A State By State Guide, NPR (Apr. 25, 2018), [].

[2]Michael Hanson, Which States Might Experience the Next Wave of Teacher Strikes?, Brookings (Apr. 13, 2018), [].

[3]John Fensterwald, Prop. 55: Initiative to Extend Income Tax Increases to Benefit Schools,EdSource(Oct. 11, 2016), [].

[4]Janus v. Am. Fed. Of State, Cty., & Mun. Emps., 138 S. Ct. 2448 (2018).

[5]431 U.S. 209 (1977).  See Amy Howe, Union Fees in Jeopardy: In Plain English, SCOTUSblog(Jan. 11, 2016), [].

[6]Reiss Becker, Allocation of Teacher Union Dues by States, California Pol’y Ctr. (June 25, 2019),[].




[10]John Fensterwald & David Washburn, High Court Ends Mandatory Fees Collected by Public Unions, EdSource (June, 27, 2018),[].

[11]Steven Greenhouse, Wisconsin’s Legacy for Unions, N.Y. Times (Feb. 22, 2014),


[13]Mike Antonucci, Antonucci: Here’s the Status of Teacher Contracts in California’s 8 Largest School Districts, LA School Report(Apr. 2, 2018), [].

[14]Josh Brown, Teachers Need More Time to Grow Professionally Before Earning Tenure,EdSource(Apr. 26, 2018), [].

About the Author

John Fensterwald, is the Editor-at-Large for EdSource and covers education policy. Prior to working with EdSource, he has covered education for various publications. David Washburn, is a News and Investigation Desk Editor with KPBS San Diego. He previously wrote for EdSource, where he covered school climate and discipline issues. This essay was adapted from a version originally published in EdSource on May 6, 2018. You can read the original essay here: