SCOTUS appears to be ready to dump mandatory public employee union dues payments.
Last Monday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Friedrichs v California Teachers Association lawsuit. The case centers around whether or not teachers and other public employees should be forced to pay dues to a union as a condition of employment in states that don’t have right-to-work (RTW) laws. Reviewing the comments and questions from the Justices, a favorable outcome is looking very good for the plaintiffs.
The lawyers and court-watchers have been anticipating a 5-4 decision, with Antonin Scalia being the swing vote. The typically conservative justice had in the past come down on the side of forced agency fees or “fair share,” which is a full dues payment minus the money the union spends on politics should a teacher object. The unions claim they are compelled to represent every teacher, and thus, every teacher should have to pay something for their services. That set up has been law since SCOTUS enshrined it in the Abood decision in 1977 in an attempt to ensure “labor peace.”
But Scalia seems to have had a change of heart. Noting the differences between private and public unions, he said, “But the problem is that it is not the same as a private employer, that what is bargained for is, in all cases, a matter of public interest. And that changes…the situation in a way that that may require a change of the rule. It’s one thing to provide it for private employers. It’s another thing to provide it for the government, where every matter bargained for is a matter of public interest.” (P. 76)
Even more damning, Scalia ended up essentially agreeing with the main point of the plaintiffs’ argument. “The problem is that everything that is collectively bargained with the government is within the political sphere, almost by definition. Should the government pay higher wages or lesser wages? Should it promote teachers on the basis of seniority or on the basis of all of those questions are necessarily political questions.” (P.45)
Anthony Kennedy, traditionally the Court’s swing voter, showed little sympathy for the union position. He dismissed the classic union rallying point that refers to those RTW state employees who “benefit” from union activities but don’t pay money to them as “free riders.” Kennedy rejected that argument, referring to them instead as “compelled riders.”
And you the term is free rider. The union basically is making these teachers compelled riders for issues on which they strongly disagree.
Many teachers think that they are devoted to the future of America, to the future of our young people, and that the union is equally devoted to that but that the union is absolutely wrong in some of its positions. And agency fees require, as I understand it — correct me if I’m wrong — agency fees require that employees and teachers who disagree with those positions must nevertheless subsidize the union on those very points. (P.43)
Kennedy also brought up the frequently fuzzy line between political spending and so called chargeable (non-political) fees, asking the lawyer for the state of California. “Do union — do unions have public relations programs of or newspaper articles, media programs to talk about things like merit pay, protecting underperforming teachers and so forth? Do the unions actually make those arguments, and aren’t those chargeable expenses? (P.44)
The union lawyers kept stressing that forced dues were essential to their survival, but Scalia disagreed, pointing out, “Why do you think that the union would not survive without these – these – fees charged to nonmembers of the union? Federal employee unions do – do not charge agency fees to nonmembers and they seem to survive; indeed they prosper….” (P.50)
The union lawyers and four Justices sympathetic to their cause didn’t have much of a defense. They kept making the same tired old points and added the stare decisis argument, the doctrine of precedent, which came up several times. Lawyers cite it when an issue has been previously brought to the court and a ruling already made. Generally, courts will adhere to the previous judgment, though this is not always the case.
There have been several landmark cases where prior rulings have been completely disregarded, most notably in Plessy v Ferguson (1896). The Court ruled the “constitutionality of state laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities under the doctrine of ‘separate but equal.’” But in 1954, stare decisis was set aside when the court overturned Plessy. In Brown v the Board of Education of Topeka, the Court reversed itself, saying that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Referring to Friedrichs, George Leef writes in Forbes, “Where First Amendment rights are at issue…stare decisis and the convenience of teachers’ unions seem very small considerations.”
The media weigh in
Reading countless reports and articles on the trial, I could not find one that thought it went the union’s way. Typical is a piece from Politico titled. “SCOTUS support for anti-union plaintiffs,” which begins, “The Supreme Court appeared ready Monday to bar public-sector unions from collecting ‘fair-share’ fees from non-members, a move that could deal a political blow to Democrats by reducing union membership drastically and draining union coffers.”
The only glimmer of hope came from American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten who wrote, “As I listened (and admittedly, I’m not impartial!), I felt they failed to present a compelling argument for why the court should overturn 40 years of precedent — precedent that has led to labor peace in the public sector, better services for communities, easier administration for state and local governments, and, of course, fair pay and benefits for working families.”
But as she said, she is not impartial. In fact, anything but.
The usual pro-union suspects weighed in and essentially agreed that the plaintiffs would probably emerge victorious, but their reporting was leaden with a heavy dose of anger and angst. Perhaps the most hysterical was an article on Huffington Post titled, “This is Bad! Attack on Teacher Unions is an Assault on Students, Workers and Democracy.” His slant was obvious; in a brief article, he used the word “rightwing” seven times and just to change things up, he threw in “right-wing” a couple of times.
What happens next?
The justices may very well have already voted or will do so very soon, but it’ll likely be June before their decision is announced. Between now and then a lot can happen. The Justices’ minds can be changed by other justices and can be affected by public opinion and (indirect) union pressure. Hence the PR war will go on.
If the unions lose, how bad will it be for them?
Probably not nearly as bad as they are making it out to be. First, they can get rid of the free rider problem by becoming a members-only organization. (Some state laws may have to be tweaked, but that shouldn’t be an onerous task.) Then, if a teacher likes their union they can pay for services rendered. If they want no part of the union, they won’t join. There are other organizations like the Association of American Educators and Christian Educators Association International that provide many of the benefits and protections offered by the union.
Also, by becoming a members-only entity, the unions will enlist only true believers. But they will, however, have to be more responsive to the needs and wishes of their members since teachers as well as other public employees will no longer be forced to pay them.
Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, writes that children could be winners should the plaintiffs prevail, “…teachers may gain greater leverage in determining the policies that union leaders pursue. If that leads to policies that reward great teaching and put more of the best teachers in the classrooms that need them most, students will win.”
And there are union stalwarts who aren’t crying in their beer. Trade union activist Shamus Cooke asserts that unions need to step up their organizing game if they are to remain powerful. Samantha Winslow makes pretty much the same point in “Organizing Is the Key to Surviving Friedrichs.”
If Friedrichs is successful, who will be the big loser?
Democrats and the left.
There is no doubt that union warchests will take a hit if all teachers aren’t forced to fill them. While no one knows how many teachers will refuse membership, I think a conservative guess would be that one-third will choose to avoid ties to the union. If so, the California Teachers Association’s $180 million a year gravy train would be sliced down to $120 million. As you can see here (H/T Colin Sharkey), CTA gives 96.7 percent of that gravy to Democrats. And what doesn’t go specifically to Democrats goes to leftist causes. On a national level, National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers’ spending just about all goes in a leftward direction.
The Abood decision, which claimed it would ensure “labor peace,” did so at the cost of freedom of association for millions of teachers across America over a 39-year period. “Labor peace” has also come at great expense to parents, children and taxpayers who have suffered as the unions coffers were used in part to kill education reform, keep kids in failing schools and raise taxes. Hopefully, the judges will soon rid our lives of Abood and if they do, trading bad policy for “labor peace” will become a sad relic of another time.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.