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Can Teacher Unions Reinvent Themselves Post-Janus?

Headshot: 2018 Meade Fellow Lance Huffman

Can Teacher Unions Reinvent Themselves Post-Janus?

The 2018 Meade Fellow Lance Huffman shares his thoughts on the future of teacher unions following the recent Supreme court decision in the labor law case, Janus v. America Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

Lance Huffman is the 2018 Meade Fellow, an opportunity run by IEL and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. As part of the fellowship, Huffman met with several education policy influencers during a week-long visit to Washington, D.C. The fellowship provided him the opportunity to meet with organizations working on public policy focused the teacher talent pipeline and teacher advocacy.

I spent nineteen years in the classroom in the right-to-work state of Arizona, three as my local association president. I sat on the bargaining team, represented members in disputes, lobbied the legislature, and oversaw membership drives (because this was a right-to-work state). I did all of this on my own time with no release from my teaching responsibilities and no pay for my work. We were driven by passion for teacher advocacy, but passion is not sustainable in the face of the mountain of tasks involved in doing advocacy work.

We, local leaders, who gave up evenings and weekends to organize, lead, and learn, would marvel at what life was like for our peers in union states. From our perspective, those local union leaders had formal and informal power, and everything for which we were fighting—pay, benefits, respect—was better in those states.

Now, after the recent Janus Supreme Court decision, all teachers are essentially employed in right-to-work states. The game has changed.

Prior to coming to Harvard to study leadership, I was principal of a middle school in Arizona. During my four years as a building leader, I was able to work with the unions despite our occasional conflicts. Frankly, I was grateful to have an organization to speak with who represented the teachers.

Just before the Janus ruling, I was fortunate to receive a Meade Fellowship jointly sponsored by the Institute for Education Leadership (IEL) and the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). IEL scheduled a series of meetings with policy experts and advocacy leaders in Washington, DC during a week in June. In these meetings, we talked of the coming Janus decision, and there was wide agreement about the reality teacher groups were facing. In the short term, this would be financially devastating to the two large teacher unions. Membership will inevitably decline significantly. The question they must face is, which members will they lose and which will they be likely to keep? What will be the value proposition of membership for teachers who do not see a significant need for union protection? If the unions position themselves as the primary advocates for children and children’s education, they could find common cause with those members who share that commitment. But children are not their members, so this will require a shift in the very identity of the unions.

Janus comes on the heels of unprecedented mobilization by teachers in right-to-work states demanding better funding for themselves and the students they serve. Teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona walked out from work in protest of their poor pay and working conditions, which they rightly framed as an assault on children. In these and other states, they won some significant victories. These walk outs were not organized by the unions, and they took the stance of defending their children’s right to a better education. This position garnered widespread public support across political lines, something rare in today’s political landscape.

Whether or not it’s accurate, unions have been characterized as fighting first for their members, and that fighting for teachers was the same as fighting for children. Popular sentiment, even among many teachers, suggests the public was not buying this. They saw too many examples of unprofessional teachers being protected by their unions and children paid the price. For the unions to succeed, they will need to make the case that they are here to protect the children first.

While unions have been dealt a blow, collective action is alive and well. The central message of the “Red for Ed” movements has been that it is the teachers who will protect the children. And that message worked.

As the two major teacher unions wrestle with their futures, my advice to them would be to embrace this as an opportunity for reinvention. From the conversations I had with both of the major teacher unions, I know they are thinking deeply about how to move forward in a post-Janus landscape. They have a tricky balance to navigate between their traditional role of protecting their members, and what I believe should be their new role of protecting children’s right to have the best possible teacher in every classroom.

This is a message of love coming from one who is proud of his union membership.

My message to current and future systems leaders – superintendents, chief academic officers, leaders of CMOs – is to see this moment also as an opportunity. This is the time to build coalitions with these organizations; they can be valuable allies in meeting our common goals. Treating Janus as a victory over collective bargaining is a mistake. It will certainly sting these organizations, but as the recent protests show, teachers are still willing to organize on behalf of their students and each other.

A very strategic needle can be thread in this moment. Teachers have a powerful political voice. Systems leaders who can work with that voice, acknowledging that teachers have a unique capacity to speak to the local challenges of the school house, will be best prepared to meet the challenges of educating our children.

The Institute for Education Leadership “has championed the need for leaders at all levels to shake off their institutional constraints and work across boundaries to address the needs of young people and their families.” The Meade Fellowship allowed me the opportunity to experience this directly. After my discussions across organizations, I left Washington optimistic that there is a positive way forward for teacher organizations to continue to advocate both for their members and for the children and families they serve.


Lance Huffman has spent his life learning from great teachers. He was raised by a career public educator, who taught him through example the transformative power a caring adult can have in the life of a child. He spent nineteen years in the classroom, working in Title I schools with talented and committed teachers who believed they had the capacity to awaken within children a grand vision for their lives, then help them realize that vision. As an English and History teacher in Arizona high schools, Lance taught students the value of challenging perspectives, whether through exploration of fiction, or through a critical look at history. As a middle school principal, Lance continued to learn from teachers, and also help them to recognize their own power to touch the future through mentoring children. He is committed to a robust public education system, and looks forward to transforming this system to meet the needs of future learners.