The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Monday on why a group of teachers shouldn’t have to pay union dues in a case that goes far beyond just public schools.
Rebecca Friedrichs and the nine other teachers involved want to end mandatory union payments. The California Teachers Association (CTA), however, argues a ruling in favor of the teachers will cause workers to just free-ride off the benefits it provides. Because teachers are technically public-sector employees, the decision could set a precedent for all government workers.
“Our objection, of course, is with the agency fees,” Michael Carvin, lead counsel for the teachers, said before the court justices. “In the collective bargaining process they are forced to free-ride.”
The plaintiff’s main argument is that mandatory union payments violate their constitutional right to free-speech. They say the union often engages in activities or takes positions they neither support nor wish to fund. The union, on the other hand, is legally compelled to represent the teachers regardless of whether they pay dues. The Supreme Court agreed Jun. 30 to hear their case.
“Their speech isn’t silenced, they are paying a service fee,” David Frederick, the union respondent, argued. “There is nothing in the agency fee process that prevents teachers from speaking out.”
Unions that win a worker vote to become the exclusive representative for a workplace are required by law to represent all the workers. No worker can be legally required to join a union, but to avoid free-riders, they can be required to fund its nonpolitical activities.
The teachers hope to reverse the 1977 case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education precedent that has allowed unions to require full dues or nonpolitical fees as a condition of employment. Frederick counters that the issue should be decided by the states, given their unique history of labor law. He adds Abood recognized that states should have that right to decide on whether union can require payment. In fact 25 states have outlawed mandatory union dues.
“States make rational and reasonable judgements,” Frederick noted. “Abood recognized the federalist interest.”
To the teachers and their supporters, the case could mean the end of laws that restrict worker freedom. To opponents, unions are what give workers a voice, so limiting their power will adversely impact their communications and negotiations with employers.
“If we are going to have collective bargaining, agency fees are in the state’s interest,” Edward DuMont, solicitor general of California, added during the hearing. “Its important they are funded so they can work with us.”
The problem comes when unions bargain with the state for benefits some teachers oppose. Friedrichs, while teaching in Buena Park, Calif., felt the union culture benefited members at the expense of the students. She could leave, but she was still required to keep funding the union. She and a group of other teachers eventually decided to file a lawsuit in April 2013.
The teachers also request the courts make union membership an opt-in process as opposed to an opt-out. Currently workers are automatically enrolled in their workplace union. They can start paying the smaller, non-political representation fees instead of full dues, but generally they have to go through a bureaucratic process. An opt-in system, though, would require that workers request to join their workplace union before being enrolled.
Frederick argues the opt-out process is not a burden and therefore not a violation of free speech. Carvin argues a system where employees are automatically enrolled into the union makes as little sense as having a person’s vote automatically cast for a particular candidate unless he goes through a process to change it.
“The only reason to do that would be to inflate the governor’s war chest,” Carvin stated. “Just like this is to inflate the union’s war chest.”
The justices are now left to deliberate on the arguments. A decision could take anywhere from a few months to the end of the year.
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