Unions played a vital role in building America’s middle class. They helped secure the forty hour work week, standards of safety, the ban against employing minors, and numerous other things. Still, in recent years critics have argued that unions have ossified and become structures of entitlement resistant to reform. The ruling in California could have sweeping implications for reform.

Teachers

Court rules that teachers’ union agreements unconstitutional

A California judge struck down teacher’s union agreement for tenure positions. Californian Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu ruled that the tenure system created impermissible unequal conditions. According to the court ruling the tenure system protected under performing teachers while discouraging and even pushing out high fliers.

Importantly, Judge Treu ruled that teacher’s unions actually violated the rights of students by essentially denying them the quality of education they deserve. The last in, first laid off policies often pushed young reformist teachers out while tenure made it difficult to fire under performing teachers. This, in turn, treaded on the rights of students to receive a quality education.

Opponents to teachers unions have long argued that they protect teachers at the expense of students. If true, this would be a serious corruption of the education system given that it has been set up to educate students, not provide teachers with jobs. The court’s ruling appears to uphold that view and could provide grounds to challenge such policies across the country.

Federal Secretary of Education Arne Duncan offered support for the ruling, claiming that the ruling offered a mandate for lawmakers and education leaders to to push for reform. Given that the democrats rely heavily on teachers unions, such a move is an important development and may point to a Democrat party less inclined to protect unions..

For now, however, the courts issued a stay while unions appeal. As such, no reforms or changes will be put in place until the appeal is heard, which could take years.

Threat to other unions?

The ruling could also give other government agencies, companies, and others grounds to pursue dismissal reform and other measures for non-teachers. Opponents to unions have long cited union tendencies to protect incompetent workers, or workers who willingly flaunt company policies, as a major reason to curb union power or even disband them.

Government agencies in particular are known for their labyrinth internal politics and an inability to rid the system of “deadwood”, or under performing workers. Given that the California court seemed to side with “public good”, such as the rights of students, over union rights, this could provide impetus for reform within other government agencies.

This wider push for reform could create dramatic changes in America’s labor relations. Union membership has declined dramatically in recent years and many Americans now believe that unions create more harmful consequences, rather than positive ones. Currently, only 51% of Americans have a favorable view of unions. This is up about 10 percent from two years ago.

Given the philosophical aim of unions, which is to protect worker rights, this number is surprisingly low. Unions have been heavily targeted by the Republican party which opposes them on both practical and ideological grounds. Most unions support Democrats and collective bargaining is viewed by Republicans as an interference in markets.

While only 11 percent of workers currently belong to unions, the organizations are a powerful voice in politics. Unions also set the tone for relations for other workers. The recent ruling, however, could lead to reforms within union labor relations. If extended to other sectors, unions may lose the ability to protect workers from being fired, especially if said workers are found incompetent.

Of course, this might not be a bad thing. After all, why should companies or the government pay workers who under perform, especially when many others would be willing to take the job?