The case we’ve been waiting for
Last week the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that will likely determine the future of public sector unions. The case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, is brought forward by Rebecca Friedrichs, a teacher who is suing the California Teachers Association. Ms. Friedrichs is suing, saying that the mandatory union dues she’s required to pay as a condition of employment violates “the principles of free speech and association.” The case will be decided by the Supreme Court prior to their adjournment next year.
Ms. Friedrichs objects to paying dues that are used for political purposes that she believes conflict with her personal beliefs. According to federal labor law, she, like Minnesota teachers, can reclaim the portion of her dues that are used for “overt political lobbying but not the 70% used for negotiation.” Ms. Friedrichs has stated that her objections are that even the portion of her dues used for collective bargaining negotiation are also political in nature.
Ms. Friedrichs understands that public sector unions are one of the largest donors to elected officials. In turn, those government officials support very generous public sector union contracts, including public pension benefits. According to her filing, public pension benefits are “one reason why state governments now hold $5 trillion in debt and Ms. Friedrichs does not see why her dues should be used to subsidize this travesty.” Since government unions are the largest employer in Minnesota, this case has serious implications here at home.
How much money and power is at stake? In fiscal year 2012, the California Teachers Association received $186 million in revenue. Using the union’s own membership numbers, we can estimate that they will forcibly extract $190 million this year. If Ms. Friedrichs is successful, it will be extremely hard for government unions to compel teachers (and other government employees) to pay dues as a condition of employment.
Nationwide, public sector unions are rapidly increasing in numbers while private sector union membership continues a steady trend downward. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 20.1% of all American workers in 1983 belonged to a union. In 2014, that number dropped to 11.1% with public sector union membership making huge gains that offset the drop in private sector union membership.
Public sector union leadership including The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and the National Education Association are watching this case carefully. They understand that if Ms. Friedrichs wins her case, they stand to lose millions of dollars in dues forcibly extracted from workers as a condition of employment. We don’t need to look any further than Wisconsin to see what happens when public sector employees were given the option each year to recertify union representation: union membership dropped dramatically.
Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association is an important case with wide implications for the future of unions as well as future elections where expansive and forced government union membership has meant union power. A win for Friedrichs would be a great win for teachers all across the nation who are tired of propping up a system that serves no one well except union bosses.