Friedrichs could free teachers, public employees from forced union dues

Right now in 23 states across America, teachers and other government employees are forced to pay dues to a labor union regardless of whether or not they wish to be members of that union. If they refuse to pay, they can be fired. 

Such has been the status quo for decades, but a group of teachers in California is seeking to change that, and their cause has reached the United States Supreme Court. They are led by Rebecca Friedrichs, an elementary school teacher of nearly thirty years.

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The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments for Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association next Monday, and likely rule in June on what could be a landmark case for the First Amendment rights of public workers across the country.

Already in 25 states, legislatures have passed and governors have signed laws guaranteeing that no employee - public or private sector - can be forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment. However, in most of the remaining states, workers in unionized jobs are required to pay hundreds of dollars in union dues even if they opt out of union membership.

Friedrichs’ home state of California is one such state lacking worker freedom.\

In these states, public employees like teachers can technically opt out of union membership, but only from the “political” portion of the dues, which amount to about one-third of the cost. They are still responsible for $600-$700 a year in “agency fees,” which the union says it designates for collective bargaining purposes.

In this case, the union Friedrichs and the other plaintiffs are forced to pay is the California Teachers Association, one of the most powerful labor organizations in the country.

In bringing this lawsuit, Friedrichs and her fellow teachers argue that because government-employee collective bargaining deals directly with taxpayer dollars and taxpayer-funded resources, it is inherently political (albeit without actually giving taxpayers a voice at the table). Because this collective bargaining process is political in nature, forcing employees to pay a union engaged in it means forcing them to support union political positions with which they may disagree.

Obviously, the First Amendment protects all Americans - including public employees - from being compelled to bankroll a political agenda against their will.

There are many reasons public employees may object to the union bargaining on their behalf, even though it is intended to benefit them. For example, teachers may disagree with the union-supported policy that makes schools use longevity, rather than merit, to determine which teachers are fired or rewarded.

Reasonable people can differ on these issues, and Friedrichs is not asking the Court to rule on any of them one way or another. The teachers are simply asking that they not be forced to pay a union that only supports one side in these debates.

Importantly, in turn, unions do not have to represent non-members at the bargaining table. Unions’ right to bargain for members only has been previously upheld by the Supreme Court, eliminating the so-called “free rider” accusation leveled against workers who might benefit from union collective bargaining without paying for it. 

A win for Friedrichs and her fellow teachers would not eliminate government union privileges. It would not stop unions from negotiating, it would not stop them from spending millions of dollars on politics as they do every year, and it would not force them to represent non-members.

A win for Rebecca Friedrichs and her fellow teachers in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association would merely free public workers from being forced to bankroll a union with which they may disagree. 

When states have taken action to provide workers this basic freedom, public employees have exercised it in droves.

For example, in Wisconsin - the birthplace of public employee unions - nearly 60,000 people have left the state’s largest teachers union and more than 30,000 workers have chosen to leave AFSCME Wisconsin, which represents state, county, and municipal employees. Both of those figures represent more than fifty percent of the unions’ total membership exercising their First Amendment rights since the state embraced worker freedom in 2011.

Undoubtedly, there are thousands of public servants in California and elsewhere wishing to be freed from forced union dues, just as there were in Wisconsin prior to 2011. The Supreme Court now has the opportunity to vindicate this simple yet vital First Amendment protection nationwide.

Here’s to hoping the court rules in favor of Friedrichs - in favor of freedom.

Chougule is the deputy director of Policy at Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy organization initially funded by oilmen Charles and David Koch.

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