Andrew Cuomo has been clear in opposing the Supreme Court’s anti-union Janus v. AFSCME decision, which will diminish the coffers of New York’s public sector unions. But if Cuomo truly values public sector workers, he will cease funding non-union charter schools. Doing so would right a serious wrong, and also be in line with Cuomo’s best virtues.
Janus, Cuomo, and charter schools:
Before Janus, states could allow public sector unions to collect mandatory “agency fees” from all workers whom they bargained on behalf of. And so, all public school teachers in New York state (such as me) paid monthly “agency fees” that contributed to their unions’ administrative and bargaining expenses. We were not required to be union members, or pay any dues that would affect political actions.
The logic of the “agency fees” requirement was that since everyone benefits from their unions’ bargaining — by enjoying better pay, pensions, benefits, and working conditions — everyone can be required to pay the fees. All had to pay because otherwise, a “free rider” problem would arise, in which workers could benefit from unions’ bargaining without paying. But the Supreme Court struck down mandatory fees in the Janus verdict, holding that payments to one’s union are forms of free speech, and thus cannot be compelled.
Months before the Janus verdict, Cuomo spoke in support of pro-union demonstrators at a massive pre-Janus rally in New York City. He has also officially denounced the decision and signed bills to strengthen unions in anticipation of it, and in response to it.
But throughout his tenure, Cuomo has also stridently supported charter schools. Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are “chartered” to play by different sets of labor and school disciplinary rules than public schools. Charter schools, can, for example, require classes to occur twelve hours per day, six days a week, and eleven months a year. Charter schools can also be non-union, and treat all teachers as “at-will” employees who will never receive tenure protections. Such practices are common among charters.
It is therefore easy to argue, as I have done, that a significant number of charter schools in a school system can harm public teachers’ unions. A charter sector competing with a public school sector can drive down teachers’ pay, pension, benefits, and working conditions because both sectors compete with each other for jobs, space, funding, and school ratings.
Indeed, New York’s state government knows that charter schools are inherently threatening to labor, which is why it sets limits on the number of charter schools that can exist within its public school system.
And yet Cuomo has never felt compelled to address the threat to teachers’ pay and benefits that charters create. If he were, he would make this argument:
In New York City, where charter school density is higher than upstate, charters only serve 10% of students. So, their effect on the public school sector is fairly low. And moreover, charter school teachers are not effectively “scab workers” who receive worse compensation and benefits than public school teachers, as many unionists charge. Charter teachers trade job security, tenure, and manageable hours for slightly higher initial pay and the satisfaction that they are working in schools with higher standards. Most charter teachers do not even desire tenure and pensions, because they only wish to teach for a few years before moving on to other careers. They do not teach at charter schools because of poor options, but because charters are where they want to teach.
Set aside whether this argument is convincing. Cuomo, as an advocate of both strong unions and charter schools, needs to make it. He needs to argue that charter sector compensation and benefits rival those of public schools — or else admit that he has enthusiastically created a scab army of charter teachers with sub-public school compensation and benefits.
Let’s assume the argument is correct. If charter teachers’ compensation and benefits do rival those of public school teachers, then Cuomo’s proliferation of charters has created a free rider problem. For, without paying any dues, non-union charter teachers have been receiving high pay and decent benefits for years — thanks, indirectly, to the bargaining of their unionized counterparts.
But even if charter contracts do not quite match public school teachers’, non-union charter teachers are still free-riders. Their contracts are better than they otherwise would be thanks to the favorable market conditions that unions’ bargaining created. Without such conditions, charter teachers might be compensated more like many teachers in red states, college adjunct instructors, or Kaplan test prep teachers here in New York — all unhappy members of the educated precariat.
And so, by allowing non-union charter schools to free-ride, while claiming to oppose free-ridership, Cuomo was contradicting himself, and harming unionized teachers. But Cuomo can right this wrong if he wishes.
As governor, he has tremendous power over charter schools. He can, with the legislature’s help, decrease the number of charters, or revise or even revoke the law that created charters in the first place. Or, he can at least threaten to take any of these actions.
Cuomo should use these powers to ensure that charter schools that do not unionize within one year of the Janus decision will cease to exist.
No excuses for inaction:
As a governor, Cuomo possesses two unusual virtues: He can actually claim to be a “pragmatic progressive”; and he is willing to change his mind.
Recall that Cuomo slyly convened a board of experts in 2015 to recommend a $15/hour minimum wage, just for fast food workers. This machination helped create the momentum and market conditions for Cuomo to legislate a statewide $15 wage for all NY workers the following year. And Cuomo did so shortly after opposing NYC mayor Bill De Blasio’s plan to raise New York City’s minimum wage to $13.13 on the grounds that such a wage was too high.
Few leaders would change their minds so quickly; and few would take such bold action to enact a controversial living wage policy. Cuomo also managed to pass same-sex marriage and free public tuition with Democratic minorities in the NY Senate.*
Using executive and legislative power, and the bully pulpit, to pressure charter school teachers to convince their teachers to unionize would, therefore, be a very Cuomo-esque and welcome move.
The objection that no teacher may be compelled to unionize, especially after Janus, may seem relevant here. It is not. Charter schools do not have an inherent right to exist, as public schools do. Their mission is to augment public education and if their teachers are free-riding, they are only harming our education system. There should be consequences for doing so.
Ironically, Democrats’ most ingenious act of “pragmatism” in education resulted in creating thousands of free-riding, non-union charter teachers. For Obama’s Race To the Top program rewarded states for “ensuring successful conditions for high-performing charters.” Obama did not care whether such schools were unionized.
If elected Democrats can use Race To the Top machinations to weaken teachers unions, they can also use their legitimate power over charter schools to strengthen unions. In this Trump-Devos-stolen SCOTUS era, in which our most powerful bureaucrats and judges evince contempt for public education and unions, their doing so is imperative. And if Andrew Cuomo is truly a pro-union, pragmatic progressive, he will lead the way.
*Democratic minorities in the New York Senate have existed in part because Cuomo tolerated the Independent Democratic Conference of Democratic senators who caucused with Republicans.