Richard Wolf, USA Today Online, reports on the now closed oral arguments in the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case before the Supreme Court. The case could free public sector workers from being forced to support or join a labor union in order to get or keep their jobs.
The Supreme Court left little doubt Monday where it stands on the issue of requiring all workers in a bargaining unit to help support its public employees union: It’s ready to strike the requirement down.
The court’s more conservative justices sharply criticized the current system whereby public employees in 23 states and the District of Columbia must contribute to the cost of collective bargaining, even if they disagree with their unions’ demands on issues involving public policy.
“The problem is that everything that is collectively bargained with the government is within the political sphere,” said Justice Antonin Scalia, seen as the lone conservative who might side with the unions. “What is bargained for is in all cases a matter of public interest.”
When lawyers for California and its teachers union cited more mundane collective bargaining issues such as mileage rates and public safety, Chief Justice John Roberts objected. “It’s all money,” Roberts said. “That’s always a public policy issue.”
Their comments and others from justices who previously have criticized the practice of compelling union fees made it clear that the court is likely to strike down its nearly 40-year-old precedent allowing states to impose such requirements on a union’s non-members. That would make it harder for unions representing teachers, police and firefighters, and other government workers to maintain their power by affecting their pocketbooks.
The ruling, expected by late June, will come in the middle of an election year in which unions are overwhelmingly aligned with the Democratic Party. It could elevate bread-and-butter issues such as the minimum wage and income inequality on the political agenda, which has been dominated lately by the threats of international terrorism, illegal immigration and guns.
But Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Californian who led much of the criticism from the bench of the mandatory union fees, said teachers challenging the requirement disagree with union positions on issues such as tenure, merit pay and class sizes. “The union is making these teachers compelled riders,” he said.
To arguments that those teachers retain the right to speak out against the policies they are helping to support with so-called “fair share” fees, Kennedy sarcastically asked if that meant they should “spend another $500, so that it balances out?”
The lawsuit was brought by the conservative Center for Individual Rights, which along with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation has sought to overturn a 1977 Supreme Court decision that allowed public employee unions to collect “fair share” fees from non-members for the costs of collective bargaining.
“We wanted to take on the most powerful public employee union in the country,” says Terence Pell, the center’s president. If the court strikes down fair share fees, he says, “It’s our hope that the unions will become more accountable to their members.”
Rebecca Friedrichs, the elementary school teacher who is the lead plaintiff, was motivated to work against her union after spending several years as an officer and finding its leadership unwilling to consider her suggestions. She opposes tenure laws that make it harder to fire bad teachers, seniority rules that ignore merit — even salary increases that lead to larger class sizes.
The challengers don’t buy any of those arguments. Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, says those who oppose their local unions but are forced to pay hundreds of dollars annually to support them “are not free riders. They’re captive passengers.”
Michigan and 17 other Republican-led states told the court that all collective bargaining at the government level amounts to lobbying, with taxpayers paying for the results.
The high court’s 1977 ruling in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education upholding union payments by non-members was unanimous, but the current court has moved away from it in two recent cases.
In 2012, the justices ruled 7-2 that a California public employee union could not impose an additional fee on workers without their assent. In 2014, they ruled 5-4 that Medicaid-funded home-care workers in Illinois did not have to pay dues to public employee unions, [the Harris v. SEIU case brought by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.]