The U.S. Supreme Court could soon upend decades of established federal law by banning mandatory union dues for public sector workers, and Rebecca Friedrichs is the teacher at the center of it all.
Friedrichs alleges the California Teachers Association (CTA) is violating her right to free speech by requiring union dues. Lawyers argued the case Jan. 11 before the highest court on behalf of her and nine other teachers. Friedrichs remains optimistic about the case even after major upsets like the death of Justice Antonin Scalia and accusations that she is a pawn for rich special interests.
“I was very impressed by our attorney Michael Carvin,” Friedrichs told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “For me, it was the first time in my entire 28-year career that I felt like I was really heard. So for myself and fellow plaintiffs and many teachers across the country, we just felt heard and that’s a really good feeling.”
It was believed Scalia would be the deciding vote against required union payments, but he died Feb. 13 after the case was heard. Legal experts have expressed doubts the teachers have a chance of winning without him. Friedrichs countered that claim, saying it wasn’t certain what Scalia would ultimately decide, nor was it certain what the other justices were thinking.
“I know the pundits and experts feel this is a split decision but we really don’t know that,” Friedrichs noted. “We have no idea nor do we have any idea how Justice Scalia was going to rule. But I have to say I was hopeful that day we were in the courtroom and I’m still hopeful today because we are in the right, we are on the side of liberty.”
If the justices come down to a split decision, it will default to whatever the lower court decided — which ruled against the teachers in favor of mandatory union dues. Nevertheless, the teachers and their legal team are prepared if the court is indeed split.
“If they come out at a four to four split, my attorneys are already prepared to ask for us to be able to retry the case. And I feel very strongly that whichever nine justices are on the bench, we still have a strong First Amendment case,” Friedrichs added. “I’m still hoping we were able to convince more than five justices.”
Labor unions and their supporters have accused Friedrichs and the other teachers involved of trying to undermine workers’ rights. They have claimed the teachers are nothing more than puppets for wealthy special interests that seek to destroy unions.
“It’s also been portrayed that teachers like myself are pawns of these wealthy businessmen,” Friedrichs noted. “We want what’s best for our students and we are being portrayed as pawns for some greedy special interests, and sadly many people fall for that narrative and it just not true.”
Friedrichs said her union has often fought for things she fundamentally disagrees with. She learned early on it was close to impossible to fire bad teachers because of union policies, while members and labor leaders benefited at the expense of students. She said the goal of the case isn’t to hurt labor unions, but rather provide workers a choice on whether they want to fund their activities.
“We’re not asking to end those unions, we’re not asking for them to stop being in business, we’re just asking for the freedom not to pay them. We’re just asking for the freedom to not have to be represented by them,” Friedrichs noted. “Members are forced and we don’t have a choice and even though the union says it speaks on behalf of all teachers in reality the union speaks on behalf of itself.”
Friedrichs has fought mandatory union dues and policies throughout her 28-year career. She tried serving as a union representative, becoming a nonmember and has spoken out often, but feels the lawsuit is the first time she has a voice.
“Having our case taken by the U.S. Supreme Court, that in itself was liberating,” Friedrichs said. “It gave me a voice and its given me hope and I am hoping that we will not be forced to pay into unions in which we fundamentally disagree. I was hoping we will have complete liberty and that we will be freed from this regime.”
The case could upend decades of established law if the justices rule in favor of the teachers. Teachers are technically public sector employees, so a decision in favor of Friedrichs could set a precedent for all government workers. The case may very well be studied by legal experts for generations to come, but the reality of the fight didn’t immediately hit her.
“You know that never even crossed my mind when we started this case,” Friedrichs said. “Do I see that now, yes definitely. And I’m humbled that a teacher who sits on the floor with little kids all day and wipes their noses, you know I work with elementary school kids, that someone at my low status in the United States could make it to the Supreme Court and have a voice.”
The teachers hope to reverse 1977 case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which allowed unions to require mandatory payments. The case addressed the free speech issue by allowing workers to opt-out of funding political activities, but they still have to fund other union activities. Before entering the case, Friedrichs knew she could face backlash due to how much the union had to lose.
“I was thrilled, my family was thrilled but we know I could end up with a lot of negative feedback because when I have spoken out against the union at work, the union reps don’t take it well,” Friedrichs said. “There are still hurtful things that are said at teacher conferences and teacher meetings that get back to me. People tell me what they hear. But what I’ve been surprised about is how many teachers have been supportive.”
Friedrichs has dedicated much of her time fighting the case in the last three years. The Supreme Court agreed Jun. 30, 2015 to hear it after the teachers appealed their loss in lower courts. T
“I still teach,” Friedrichs noted about her life’s first passion. “I have to teach part-time so I have the time to give interviews and go to the court. I didn’t want the time involved in the lawsuit to impact my students so I choose to teach part-time and its been really nice that I’m able to spend a lot of time with my students and give adequate time to my legal battle.”
Looking ahead, Friedrichs said the case will remain a part of her life no matter the result. She plans to keep fighting for teachers and workers when freedom is in question, and hopes to remain in contact with her fellow plaintiffs.
“We have gathering whenever we can and we’re growing into close friendships,” Friedrichs added. “This has been a part of my life. I didn’t have a voice in the public before but I don’t see how I can stop. Its so much a part of me. I definitely plan on continuing to support teachers and those who long for freedom and fight for freedom.”
The CTA has claimed it’s only fair to require mandatory union payments. Unions that get voted in as the exclusive representative for a workplace are required by law to represent all the workers regardless of whether they pay dues. When asked for further comment, the union directed TheDCNF to its website for more information.
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