Supreme Court Case That Could Topple Teachers Unions

Rebecca FriedrichsFaced with the greatest legal challenge to their core source of revenue, California unions have braced for defeat and scrambled for alternatives.

Some time after its new term begins this month, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which challenges the union’s collection of mandatory fees from members. The case’s stakes have been raised as high as possible by plaintiffs’ supporters. “We are seeking the end of compulsory union dues across the nation,” said Terry Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights, according to the Sacramento Bee.

“Since 1997, the Supreme Court has held that requiring non-union members to pay the cost of collective bargaining prevents ‘free riders,’ meaning workers who get the benefits of a union contract without paying for it,” as NBC News noted. “But in subsequent rulings, several of the court’s conservatives have suggested that the decision should be overruled.” Legal analysts suggested the track record implies a victory for California’s plaintiffs. Erin Murphy, a federal appeals lawyer, told NBC News she “would not feel very good about my prospects if I were the unions.”

Crisis mode

At the end of the Legislature’s final session, pro-union Democrats attempted an unusual “gut and amend” maneuver, wherein a bill’s contents are wiped out and completely replaced without revisiting the standard hearing process. The new language would have required one-on-one, union-sponsored “public employee orientation” for existing and new employees. The content of the orientation “would be the sole domain of the union and not open to negotiation,” with employees “required to attend in person during work hours. Taxpayers would pick up the tab,” the Heartland Institute added in a critical summary.

Although the effort failed, it was a notable reflection of state unions’ concern that they can’t rely on the Supreme Court to protect their current practices. “Public employee unions haven’t had mandated orientations because they don’t need them,” U-T San Diego’s Steven Greenhut observed, calling the last-minute gut and amend a “pre-emptive strike” on the court’s hearing of Friedrichs. “Newly hired workers must already pay dues to the recognized union.”

Not all union supporters have framed the impending decision as a crisis, however. “Even some pro-union voices have argued the Friedrichs case doesn’t portend the end of the world for public-sector unions, in that it might force them to become more responsive and democratic,” Greenhut suggested.

But the court’s decision is likely to hinge on more fundamental questions pertaining to the very definition of a union.

What’s a union?

One element of the problem has been that unions fear members just won’t pay dues if they can get away with it — the so-called “free rider” problem, familiar from the idea that many fewer Americans would pay taxes were they merely voluntary. “No one knows how many would, with annual dues in the CTA, for example, often topping $1,000,” according to the Los Angeles Daily News. “That makes this a life-and-death case for the unions,” which fear the political power of their main adversaries — certain large corporations and high-net-worth individuals — would go undiminished. It would be very difficult, in other words, for the court to successfully separate the question of unions’ political power from the question of their existence.

That has led analysts to focus on a second aspect of the problem of what a union really is. One Justice, Antonin Scalia, has indicated in the past that the existence of unions within the American system of law depends on their ability to generalize the burdens of keeping them running. “In a 1991 case, he wrote that because public sector unions have a legal duty to represent all employees, it’s reasonable to expect all workers to share the costs,” the Daily News noted.

For that reason, the question of what counts as political expenditures would likely come to the fore before the court. But the plaintiffs in Friedrichs have anticipated the controversy, because they see it as the foundation of their entire case. “All union fees, they argue, are in some way used for political activities and since they don’t always agree with the union’s stance, having to pay any fees is an infringement on their first amendment rights,” the Guardian reported.

Originally published by CalWatchdog.com