Here comes 2016, perhaps the most significant year for government workers in decades.
The reason: Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association.
On Monday the U.S. Supreme Court returns to hear arguments over whether the union can require payment from teachers it represents in contract talks. The justices could support the status quo or issue a ruling that only changes payments to CTA. Union leaders everywhere fear, however, a broader decision that would squeeze their own treasuries and diminish public labor’s political clout at all levels of government.
“Anything that threatens unions’ funding base is a big deal,” said Daniel J.B. Mitchell, a labor law and history expert at UCLA. Friedrichs, he said, has potential to affect state and local labor unions and change “the broader politics of the state.”
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Since 1977, the courts have held that public-sector unions cannot require workers to pay for political activities, but can charge “fair share fees” (also known as “agency fees”) for collective bargaining and other nonpolitical services that benefit all represented employees.
Abood v. Detroit Board of Education established that public-sector unions could charge nonmembers a fee for nonpolitical activities that benefit all employees, such as collective bargaining.
Friedrichs challenges precedent with a straightforward assertion: Everything that government-employee unions do is political.
“Public-sector unions’ collective-bargaining efforts constitute political speech designed to influence governmental decision-making,” states the petition filed by 10 teachers who sued their union. “In this era of broken municipal budgets and a national crisis in public education, it is difficult to imagine more politically charged issues than how much money cash-strapped local governments should devote to public employees ...”
Former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, former California state Sen. Gloria Romero, The Cato Institute, The Pacific Institute and the National Right to Work Legal Defense Fund have filed arguments supporting the case against CTA.
The plaintiffs, backed by anti-labor organizations such as the Cato Institute and the Pacific Legal Foundation, also contend that requiring employees annually to opt out of paying full dues is unconstitutional. Instead, they say, the default should require opting in.
The teachers union counters that the California law requires it to bargain for all employees, that fair-share fees prevent “free riders” who would benefit from union representation but leave others to pay for it, and that members who object to union actions are free to express their views “to the relevant decision maker” in public meetings.
The system to stop contributions for political activities, the union’s response states, is straightforward and that “no plaintiff has failed to exercise the right to opt out due to a lack of awareness of the procedure by which to do so ... the same is true of all other nonmembers as well.”
A broad ruling against labor, Mitchell said, won’t put CTA and other unions out of business, “but they would be hurt.” Some true believers would continue to pay full dues, he predicted, but far more would keep their money.
The conservative-leaning Roberts court has scheduled 80 minutes to hear arguments on Monday, 20 minutes more than usual. Expect a decision by the end of June.