Janus-faced public-sector unions Janus-cased by US Supreme Court

This piece was written by KPI scholar David Dorsey. David spent 17 years teaching in Kansas public school classrooms.

Lost in all the hullaballoo over the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Janus decision is the sense of irony in the very name of the case. On June 27 the Court decided in Janus v. AFSCME that union dues cannot be compelled from public employees, thus ending forty years of extracting dues from non-members that, among other things might have endorsed causes a (non)member didn’t support. It is hailed as a victory for freedom of speech advocates but chastised by those on the left who feel judicial precedent is more important than constitutional rights. Justice Alito, who wrote for the majority stated, “We conclude that this arrangement violates the free speech rights of nonmembers by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern.”

So, what’s up with the name? In this case, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Janus coincidentally happens to be the Roman god for all beginnings (the month of January is named for Janus). Janus is always depicted with two faces, symbolizing the past and the future. That makes this court case a double irony, to coin a phrase.

The dual faces of Janus are now symbolic of a new start for all public-sector employees – not just teachers. No longer do they have to face the past practices of having paychecks raided by the unions to finance political activities contrary to their beliefs. Now they face a future free from such intrusion on their constitutional right of free speech.

But being Janus-faced also has a duplicitous connotation, similar to an accusation of being two-faced.

Teachers unions have always been Janus-faced.  Facing one side, the Kansas National Education Association (KNEA) – the union I had the privilege not to join – claims to be supporters of teachers and students. They put it right in their mission statement:

Kansas National Education Association’s mission is to advocate for education professionals and to unite our members, Kansans, and the nation to fulfill the promise of public education to prepare every student to succeed in a diverse and interdependent world.

However, former teacher (and former union member) Erika Sanzi reveals the other face. Sanzi, writing for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, describes her much different union experience than the one scribed by KNEA. When it came to guarding their members she

witnessed the behavior of union lawyers who, in their quest to protect teachers who were literally damaging kids, would say and do the most despicable things I’d ever seen in a room full of adults. They would lie, insult, and bully just to secure benefits for their members that they knew would be detrimental for students. And they did it with a bluster that made it seem like the well-being of students quite literally never crossed their minds…it wasn’t about kids. Period.

As a non-union teacher I was never able to witness directly what Ms. Sanzi did, but I experienced working alongside a handful of incompetent teachers – teachers who clearly had no business directing a classroom – whose jobs were saved by the union.  A few of them were protected by the kind of lawyers Sanzi described, but more often the union represented an omnipresent threat that kept principals from even pursuing disciplinary actions. The unions are all about protecting members, even at the expense of students.

What will be the impact on Kansas? Fortunately, Kansas remains a right-to-work state, so union membership cannot be prescribed. Given that, one might think the Janus effect will be minimal. However, it may cause unionized public employees (especially teachers) to pay closer attention to the political activities of their union. It also serves as an alarm that union membership is not required, which is contrary to the message KNEA conveys to teachers, especially new ones.

The crucial message from Janus really has nothing to do with unions. It’s all about the importance of maintaining our most fundamentally protected constitutional right: the freedom of speech. When speech is compelled, as in this case when union dues were used to support partisan political activities, the freedom part of freedom of speech is lost.