On Monday, California public school teacher Rebecca Friedrichs and eight colleagues go before the U.S. Supreme Court to ask whether they can be forced to pay union dues that fund political spending with which they disagree.
A win for them would be a win for millions of public sector employees in the 23 states that deny them the freedom to decide whether to spend part of their paychecks on their unions’ political agenda.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1977 that all unionized public employees must pay an amount to cover their “fair share” of benefits they receive, even if they’re not union members. But the court also ruled that unions must, upon request, carve out dues spent on overtly political activities. Unions spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year to support Democratic candidates and special interest groups for controversial causes such as abortion rights, gun control and energy regulations.
Friedrichs and her fellow teachers contend that there is no difference between “overt” political spending and the California Teachers Association’s promotion of policies funded by the rest of their union dues because all its activities are “inherently political.”
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For instance, their union spends money to promote tenure for teachers after only two years, “last-in, first-out” seniority during layoffs and procedural protections that make it nearly impossible to fire teachers for incompetence. These policies particularly hurt students who attend schools in poor neighborhoods.
Some teachers favor these policies because of the benefits they receive personally; if the court rules in favor of Friedrichs, these teachers will still be free to support the union with their dues. For other teachers who disagree with their union’s policies, a victory for Friedrichs would let them assert their own political views, or spend the money nonpolitically.
Fears that members will desert their unions in droves if Friedrichs wins have been proven unfounded in “right-to-work” states where everyone may opt out of paying dues entirely. For instance, after Michigan went “right-to-work” in 2014, only 20 percent of union members opted out of all dues.
Some argue that public workers should have their free speech rights “balanced” away as the price of having a government job. This ignores that the First Amendment protects both the public and the speaker.
Public education in America is deteriorating largely because the unions make it appear, falsely, that teachers speak with one voice. Unless dissenting teachers are afforded free speech protection, the public will hear an unbalanced view.
The court repeatedly has ruled that people can’t be forced to support political speech they disagree with, so this case will likely come down to whether the court views public sector unions’ representational spending as political.
Given that unions’ strategy is indistinguishable from most political strategies – demanding more pay and higher spending to grow their power – the court should rule for Friedrichs.
Robert Loewen is chairman of the California Policy Center, an affiliate of the State Policy Network, a free-market think tank. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.