Are Teachers Required to Join Teacher Unions?

What Teacher Unions Can and Cannot Do

Woman holding sign at Teacher's Union Strike in Chicago
Scott Olson/Staff/ Getty Images News/Getty Images

Teacher unions were created as a way to combine the voices of teachers so that they could better bargain with their school districts and protect their interests. Every state has at least one state-level affiliate of either the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) or the National Education Association (NEA). Many states have affiliated organizations for both unions. Together, these unions have a membership of 4.6 million active teachers and other public school employees, college faculty and staff, retirees, and students.

Many new teachers wonder if they will be required to join a union when they get their first teaching job. The legal answer to this question is "no."  While joining a union does provide legal protection and other benefits, the question of mandatory membership has been settled by two Supreme Court Rulings that specifically address the limits of union membership.

The first decision was Abood v. Detroit Board of Education in 1977.  This decision settled the question of whether “compelling an employee” to pay dues to finance all of the union activities, including those "ideological activities unrelated to collective bargaining," violated the First Amendment. The unanimous ruling from the Burger Court determined that the union fees collected from teachers could only be used to cover costs “related to bargaining.” According to this ruling, teacher unions could collect only those fees necessary for salary negotiations, even if a teacher did not join the union.

Abood v. Detroit was overturned in May 2018. The case Janus v. AFSCME settled the question of requiring union fees that could be used for salary negotiations. The 5-4 court majority from the Roberts Court overturned the precedent set by Abood v. Detroit  finding “that Abood was poorly reasoned, lacked workability.” The majority opinion that was written by Samuel Alito stated,

"The First Amendment is violated when money is taken from nonconsenting employees for a public-sector union; employees must choose to support the union before anything is taken from them."

This Supreme Court decision impacts the union membership for both the NEA and the AFT by eliminating funds they can collect from teachers who are not members of a union.

While union membership is not mandatory, a teacher who joins a union is provided legal protection and other benefits. According to the 2012 report “How Strong Are U.S. Teacher Unions? from the Thomas Fordham Institute, “Studies have generally concluded that school districts with strong unions pay their teachers more.”

Historically, teacher unions have been instrumental in raising teacher salaries. In 1857, the NEA was founded in Philadelphia by 43 educators to focus on raising teacher salaries. In 1916, the American Federation of Teachers was also formed to address teacher salaries and to stop discrimination against female teachers. The AFT negotiated against contracts requiring that teachers:

“wear skirts of certain lengths, teach Sunday school, and not receive gentleman callers more than three times a week.”

But both of these the unions have also influenced social issues and political policies since their inception. For example, in the early 20th century, the NEA tackled child labor laws, worked to educate emancipated slaves and argued against the forced assimilation of Native Americans. The AFT also was politically active and ran 20 "Freedom Schools" in the South during the 1960s and fought for civil and voting rights for all American citizens who are disenfranchised.

Unions today tackle other social issues and political policies including different federally mandated education initiatives (NCLB, Race to the Top) as well as per-pupil expenditures, universal access to preschool, and the expansion of charter schools.

Critics of teacher unions argue that both the NEA and the AFT have blocked attempts at education reform. The Fordham report notes criticism that “unions generally succeed at preserving teacher job security” often “at the expense of improved opportunities for kids.”

In contrast, supporters of teachers unions maintain that “opposition to misguided reforms is warranted.” The same report notes that "the highly unionized states perform at least as well as any others (and better than many)" on The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The NAEP is the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America's students know and can do in math, science, and reading.

Both teacher unions have a deep membership pool since the education profession employs more unionized staff in either the public or private sector than any other profession. Now, new teachers have the right to choose to join that membership pool or not as they decide whether union membership is right for them. They can contact the AFT or the NEA for additional information on union benefits.