A Michigan-based “free market” think tank is emailing teachers across Maryland urging them to drop their union memberships in the wake of the Supreme Court decision that said public employees cannot be forced to pay union fees.
Teachers and union officials say they have been alarmed by the email campaign and question how its organizers gained access to school system email addresses.
The email from the “My Pay, My Say” campaign says government workers “now have a real choice when it comes to their unions. … Whether it’s disagreements about politics, concerns about a lack of local representation, problems with union spending or something else — you now have the right to stop paying for activities you don’t support.”
Rogie Legaspi, a seventh-grade life sciences teacher at Hamilton Elementary/Middle School, was puzzled when the email came to his school system address, which he keeps separate from a personal email account. It arrived shortly after the Supreme Court ruling in late June.
“This came through my work email, and how they did it was a puzzle to me,” said Legaspi, a Baltimore Teachers Union member for a decade. “It’s encouraging union members to give up their memberships, and they’re basically saying you can save a couple of dollars.”
The “My Pay, My Say”campaign was organized by The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which describes itself as a nonpartisan research and educational institute that has long championed national issues of worker freedom. Its campaign was spurred by the federal justices’ 5-4 vote to overturn a 41-year-old precedent and rule that the 1st Amendment protects teachers, police officers and other public employees from being required to support a private group whose views may differ from theirs.
The court’s decision in Janus vs. AFSCME, seen as a setback for public sector unions, struck down laws in Maryland and other mostly Democratic-leaning states that allowed unions to negotiate contracts requiring all employees to pay a so-called fair share fee to cover the cost of collective bargaining, even those who opted out of membership.
Baltimore Teachers Union president Marietta English said the email blast is emblematic of a “drop the union” message right-wing groups are pushing in the wake of the court’s decision. But she said the effort is largely futile here, given that her union is now seeing its highest membership numbers ever: 95 percent.
“These billionaires are trying to cut out the voice of the working class,” she said. “It’s not working.”
Lagaspi echoed English.
“For me, the unions support the working class people and the very profession we love is protected,” Legaspi said. “It fights for a lot of things teachers want, such as full funding of schools.”
The Mackinac campaign has targeted public employees across the country, including teachers, police and fire workers and city and county employees, through email, social media and meetings, said Lindsay Killen, the institute’s vice president for strategic outreach and communications. Killen said the group has been building email contact lists for years, often obtaining the publicly available information through freedom of information requests.
“To the extent that union leaders are unhappy with the fact that we’re reaching out to workers in their school systems or places of work, we would assert that those individuals deserve to know what their rights are, and they have a choice,” said Killen, adding that the group stops short of encouraging workers to opt out of unions. “If unions are truly providing a valuable service to members, their members are more likely to stay, and they have nothing to fear from those members being armed with information about their rights.”
Mackinac is one of numerous groups that reportedly have launched public campaigns in the wake of the Janus decision, including Washington-based Freedom Foundation, the Commonwealth Foundation, the Yankee Institute for Public Policy and Americans for Prosperity. According to website Conservative Transparency, donors to Mackinac in 2014 and in prior years, have included the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, launched in 1989 by President Donald Trump’s education secretary and her husband.
In the days after the Janus decision, teachers throughout the state received “My Pay, My Say” emails, said Adam Mendelson, a spokesman for the Maryland State Education Association, which represents 74,000 members, teachers, support staff and administrators in all state jurisdictions except Baltimore.
They received “spam-type emails in their inboxes from billionaire-funded extremist political groups … to try to convince them to give away their voice and their contracts,” Mendelson said. “They don’t have educators and Maryland students’ best interests in mind.”
Mendelson said he heard from members in Anne Arundel, Frederick, Prince George’s, Carroll and Howard counties and from the Eastern Shore but did not know how many received the emails.
Annie Cumberland, a media specialist at Northwest Middle School in Carroll County, who received an email, said she wasn’t surprised that people were “already trying to bust up our unions” soon after the Janus decision. But she was upset to learn that the DeVos foundation made past contributions to the campaign’s organizer.
“This is someone who has a major, influential position in our country, who in one way or another is not supporting public education when that is her number one job,” Cumberland said.
English criticized The Mackinac Center for accessing teachers’ work email addresses and using them to try and sway opinions.
Edie M. House-Foster, the city schools’ spokeswoman, said the system did not provide teacher email addresses or sanction the letter.
“We don’t know how they got them,” she said.“They could have harvested them a variety of ways.”
In an email to teachers and staff following the “My Pay, My Say” email blast, the district said it is not affiliated with the sender and does not interfere in issues related to union membership.
English said no other anti-union materials have been reported to the BTU since the Janus decision. At the same time, the union has sent out emails and made house calls to teachers on the fence about becoming full members, urging them to remember that “we are stronger together.”
The union counts roughly 7,000 teachers and paraprofessionals as full members of the union. Prior to the Janus decision, about 450 people paid agency fees but were not full members, union officials said. Since the decision, 20 of those teachers have signed membership cards, and roughly 100 more have signaled their interest in joining the union.
English estimated the union will lose out on about $300,000 now that teachers aren’t compelled to pay those fees. The union has been bracing for this for years, as the Janus case wound its way through the court system.
The union doesn’t anticipate any vital programming will be cut. Rather, the group has been implementing proactive cost-saving measures, like letting vacancies go unfilled.
It’s not surprising that such a campaign would focus on teachers, who are among the most identifiable of public sector unionized employees, said Michael Hayes, a labor law professor at the University of Baltimore.
The friction between unions and anti-union opponents stretches back decades, but has become more partisan in recent years, Hayes said.
“Now it’s a given that public sector unions support Democrats and opponents will support Republicans,” Hayes said. “It’s quite a tug of war we’ve got going.”
Jimmy Gittings, president of the city school system administrators’ union, said no anti-union messaging has been reported since the Janus decision. Sgt. Clyde Boatwright, president of the city school police union and vice president of the state Fraternal Order of Police, said he hasn’t heard of any anti-union messaging in either capacity.
“We haven’t faced that issue at all,” Boatwright said.
The Janus case grew out of a Supreme Court decision in 1977 that said public employees may not be forced to pay union dues if some of the money went for political contributions. At the time, the justices upheld the lesser “fair share” fees on the theory that all employees benefited from a union contract and its grievance procedures.
The current, more conservative court disagreed last month and said employees have a right not to give any support to a union. These payments were described as a form of “compelled speech,” which violates the 1st Amendment.
The anti-union National Right to Work Foundation, which funded the challenge, predicted the ruling would free more than 5 million public employees from supporting their unions.
Richard Vatz, a Towson University professor of rhetoric and communication, said a weaker union would have an effect on teacher pay.
“It reduces the bargaining power,” he said.
Despite that, he said he supports the Janus decision.
“I think it is wrong particularly of that profession that they sacrifice academic freedom to increase the efficacy of their bargaining power,” he said.
Mackinac’s Killen said it’s too soon to know the campaign’s impact. But so far, she said, thousands of people in all 50 states have visited the website for information or to fill out a form, customized for each state, to opt out of a union.
Hayes said the effectiveness of the “My Pay, My Say” campaign will vary from area to area.
“They might make more headway in Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore than the city of Baltimore,” he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.