On Monday, Jan. 11, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a major challenge to how labor unions for public employees operate. The specific issue before the Supreme Court involves California’s largest teachers’ union and could affect how public employee unions operate nationwide.
Recognizing the implications of the issue, the court is devoting 80 minutes, versus the standard 60, for the oral arguments tomorrow. The case – Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association – is about an effort by some teachers to defect from the California Teachers Association (CTA) without having to pay a fee to belong to their state and local unions. Rebecca Friedrichs, an elementary school teacher in Orange County, along with nine other teachers around the state and an advocacy group, brought forward the case, which challenges a 39-year-old precedent on union dues.
A 1977 Supreme Court decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education said that unions that collectively bargain on behalf of public employees cannot require nonmembers to pay dues for political activity. However, it indicated that the unions can require non-members to pay “fair share” or “agency” fees to the union to cover the cost of negotiating for things on non-members’ behalves.
California is one of 23 states that currently require public workers to pay the “fair share” fees for public employee unions, even if the worker does not belong to the union. The fees were established to cover the cost of collective bargaining efforts that affect the non-members’ benefits, pay and working conditions.
As a result, California teachers who opt not to belong to the union are asked to kick in about $350 to $400 in fees, as compared to the more than $1,000 state and local union dues annually paid by members. For California public unions and those representing public employees in other states, there are hundreds of millions of dollars annually that are at stake in the lawsuit, which explains the support California has gotten from 21 states and various labor groups on the case.
The teachers who filed the suit are non-members of the CTA. Their legal challenge before the Supreme Court is based on a theory that collective bargaining by a public union should be considered as political activity since their salaries and benefits are influenced governmental decision-making. They maintain that being forced to pay fees should be viewed as compelled speech and a violation of their First Amendment rights.
Conversely, the CTA and the state want the Supreme Court to leave the Abood precedent in place. The unions argue that non-members should not be allowed a “free ride” to not pay due but still benefit from whatever the CTA negotiates for teachers in their collective bargaining process. They argue that it would be like four roommates sharing an apartment, but one not paying any rent. They also maintain that requiring non-members to pay some dues or fees strengthens the union’s ability to negotiate on behalf of all teachers affected by the collective bargaining agreement. The federal government submitted a “friend of the court” brief supporting this stance.
The implications of the case go way beyond the teachers union. It could undermine organized labor altogether. The percentage of all U.S. workers represented by labor unions has shrunk to about 12 percent, of which about 40 percent are government workers. The California Teachers’ Union challenge before the U.S. Supreme Court is considered a crucial test for organized labor.
Written and edited by Dyanne Weiss
Fortune: This Supreme Court Case Could Deal A Major Blow to Public Unions
San Jose Mercury News: U.S. Supreme Court weighs key challenge to California’s largest teachers union
Orange County Register: Public service unions challenged in Supreme Court case: a Q&A
Photo by Daderot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons