Supreme Court to hear case challenging public employee unions

Supreme Court to hear case challenging public employee unions
© Getty Images

The Supreme Court has decided to hear a case in the next term that could threaten union shops in public workplaces.

The case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, centers on a California law that allows school districts to require public school teachers, as a condition of employment, to either join the union representing teachers in their district or pay the equivalent of dues to that union.

If a majority of employees in a school district join the union, the law allows it to become the exclusive bargaining representative for the public school employees and bargain on a wide range of terms and conditions, including wages, hours, health and welfare benefits, leave, transfer and reassignment policies, class size, and procedures for evaluating employees and processing grievances, court documents said.


Union dues for nonmembers typically consume roughly 2 percent of a new teacher’s salary and sometimes increase regardless of whether there is an increase in teacher pay. According to court documents, the total amount of annual dues often exceed $1,000 per teacher, while the amount of the refund received by nonmembers who successfully opt out each year is generally around $350 to $400.

Some teachers in California, including Rebecca Friedrichs, argue that union shops and their requirement that every public school teacher annually renew, in writing, his or her objection to subsidizing the unions’ political agenda, violate their right to free speech.

The Supreme Court is now being asked to decide whether the 1977 ruling in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which upheld union shops in public workplaces, should be overturned and public-sector union shops ruled unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

The high court will also decide whether it violates the First Amendment to require public employees to affirmatively opt out of union payments, rather than requiring employees to affirmatively consent to the union fees.

In a joint statement, National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García; American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten; California Teachers Association President Eric Heins; the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees President Lee Saunders; and the Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry said they are disappointed the court is revisiting a decision that has made it possible for public employees to join unions at work for more than 35 years.

“When people come together in a union, they can help make sure that our communities have jobs that support our families,” they said. “It means teachers can stand up for their students. First responders can push for critical equipment to protect us. And social workers can advocate effectively for children’s safety.”