Oral arguments began today in the case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. A lot has been written on this but if you need a recap, here’s a very short summary, followed by some links for greater detail and more analysis.
What this case is about
Current law (Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, 1977) says that while public employees may refuse to join unions, they can still be required pay for the cost of representation (although this varies by state, as noted below). This makes sense as public employee unions are required to negotiate on behalf of ALL employees, and any employees who don’t contribute to that cost are, essentially, getting a free ride courtesy of their co-workers.
Workers who do not wish to support the political activities of a union are required to pay only an “agency fee,” an arrangement designed to protect the First Amendment rights of those who don’t agree with the union’s political activities. (Note that in New York, all political activity is funded through voluntary VOTE COPE contributions and no dues are used for this purpose).
What the plaintiffs in Friedrichs are claiming is that since public unions negotiate with public entities, ALL of their activities are inherently political. For example, when a union negotiates for salary and benefits with public school district, that impacts how taxes are spent and the employees themselves may not agree with that. If you cock your head to the side and close one eye, I suppose you can see a certain logic to this, but it falls apart pretty quickly.
Currently, twenty-seven states are so-called “right to work” states, where public employees can not only decline to join unions, they can refuse to contribute to the costs incurred for their own representation. In these states, unions have less influence and union workers earn less and have fewer benefits. And as a number of studies have shown, it isn’t just union workers who lose out – the decline of unions negatively impacts all workers.
If the court rules for the plaintiffs, then, in effect, every state will become a “right to work” state. It is a bit of hyperbole to say (as some have implied) that such a decision will destroy public sector unions. What will actually happen will depend on how union members respond. Will members put their own short-term interests (i.e. saving a few dollars on dues) ahead of the long-term needs of their colleagues and their community? If enough do, across the country, across the state, and within SWRTA it will significantly impact the union’s ability to effectively do its job. And while it may not have ramifications for our next contract, it will undoubtedly weigh heavily on the following one.
There is no telling when a decision may be reached. It might go all the way to the Spring. The general consensus in the press seems to be that the most likely scenario is a ruling against unions, and an article in today’s New York Times on today’s proceedings definitely leans that way.
We’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, If you’d like to read more, check out the links below.
Friedrichs for Dummies (a no-nonsense summary from the Curmudgucation blog)
How Friedrichs v. Calif. Teachers Association Could Actually Be a Boon for Unions (An interesting perspective from In These Times)
State and Union Rights are at stake (Another interesting take on the case from USA Today)
The American Bar Association Journal’s article on the case
New Threat to Public Employee Unions (SCOTUS Blog)