Polling this month showed that two-thirds of the nation’s teachers would prefer to stay out of the classroom this fall, and teachers unions across America are poised to keep schools from reopening. The unions say the safety of their members is their top concern, yet, truth is, their bottom lines are just as critical.

That’s because the pandemic represents their biggest financial threat since teachers won the right to stop paying them.

And that fact goes a long way toward understanding UFT boss Michael Mulgrew’s threat Wed­nesday of an illegal strike here in the city.

Public-employee unions in 22 states, including New York, California and Illinois, got a sudden introduction to the market economy when the Supreme Court ruled in 2018’s Janus v. AFSCME that unions couldn’t force nonmembers to pay them.

Millions of teachers and other government workers went from captive payers to customers.

Just two years later, one in 10 New York unionized state workers isn’t paying dues — a figure that inches up monthly as union members retire and new workers join at a considerably lower rate.

Membership is becoming even less common among certain groups — like New York’s state university professors. Among adjunct professors, one in three has stopped paying dues.

After growing every year since 2012, the New York State United Teachers, the statewide teachers union, chalked up two straight years with fewer people paying them, and last year it saw its dues revenues stumble 7 percent. Meanwhile, the unfunded liabilities that NYSUT accrued under its old business model have swollen to almost a half-billion dollars.

NYSUT promised to be “relentless” against any reopening plan to which members object, and Mulgrew, too, is now beating his chest — lest teachers wonder what their dues are buying them.

And for the UFT, the stakes are enormous.

After Mulgrew stopped short of threatening a strike last month, a renegade faction led a substantial street protest and called for “rolling sickouts.”

Teacher strikes, however, are illegal in the Empire State, and if UFT undertook one, the city would almost definitely be required to stop deducting its dues, leaving the UFT on its own to collect almost $1,400 a year from about 70,000 teachers.

When the UFT’s dues privileges were last suspended, in 1982, revenues fell about 30 percent — but 100 percent of teachers still had to pay when the suspension ended. After Janus, there’s no knowing how many teachers would keep paying, even after the city resumed deductions.

As one UFT dissident put it, “Mulgrew’s main worry is losing union dues [automatic dues checkoff] if we stage a job action.”

In threatening a strike, then, Mulgrew may be playing chicken with city school leaders: He needs to scare them out of reopening, because he fears his members will close schools on their own — and the city will then stop collecting UFT dues.

The UFT isn’t the only union caught between extreme factions and serious penalties.

In Rochester, one of New York’s largest school districts, a militant band in the teachers union threatened to strike last winter, even before the pandemic struck. It’s now demanding that schools remain closed until the surrounding county of 740,000 people stays COVID-free for 14 days.

Indeed, even before Janus, unions in New York and other states had a good indicator of where things might be headed: In the first full year after Michigan’s 2013 right-to-work law stopped unions from forcing teachers to pay, the Michigan Education Association president bragged that 99 percent of members had stuck with the union. But a year later, 5 percent had left.

Today, the MEA membership has shrunk 33 percent from 2012 levels, even as public-school employment has grown. And that was without a serious issue like COVID putting demands on union leaders.

Families across the country are appropriately concerned about having to shell out thousands of dollars for child care if schools don’t reopen; the teachers unions have framed their concerns around health and safety. In reality, both sides are carefully watching their bank accounts.

About the Author

Tim Hoefer

Tim Hoefer is president & CEO of the Empire Center for Public Policy.

Read more by Tim Hoefer

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