On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a case that asks whether all workers in public sector unions, be they members or not, have an obligation to contribute to the union’s costs to represent them in grievances and at the bargaining table.
The court has already ruled that unions have an obligation to represent non-members and that is not likely to change. It also ruled that non-members have an obligation to contribute to the costs of representation and bargaining. If the court now rules in favor of the plaintiffs in Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association, the justices would be overturning a nearly 40-year precedent.
This may seem like a technical issue with little impact beyond public employee unions. But the implications of this decision could be far-reaching. If the court ends “fair share” union dues, it would hurt our unions’ ability to represent our members and weaken our ability to improve wages, benefits and working conditions.
For those of us in education, it could also undercut our ability to improve learning and teaching conditions by advocating for smaller class sizes, restoring art and music programs and improving teacher training and evaluation. While non-members do not contribute to the political program of their unions, the erosion of union funds will have an impact on our ability to organize in all aspects of union work.
The most obvious example is how the labor movement supported Proposition 30 in 2012. Union support for that historic measure, which raised income taxes on California’s wealthiest individuals, has generated more than $6 billion a year for education and ended years of devastating cuts and layoffs. Millions of students have benefited.
While the proponents of Friedrichs are arguing the case on freedom of speech grounds, the wealthy anti-union forces behind this effort understand that a ruling in their favor will undercut labor’s support for liberal and progressive causes. It is no secret that unions support many social justice organizations that advocate for economic fairness, racial equality, women’s rights, voting access, the environment and many other issues.
This case is also a broadside against the labor movement more generally. Public sector workers are the most organized group left within a labor force that is already at the lowest level of union representation since World War I. While public support for unions has continued to increase, currently less than 7 percent of all private sector workers in this country are in a union.
At a time when American workers are losing ground financially and are profoundly worried about their future, weakening the voice of public sector unions will not only hurt the labor movement, it will worsen economic inequality. As we have seen in other parts of the world, a country in which the wealthy and the corporations dictate every aspect of life is not a foundation for democracy.
Is that the kind of society we want?
Joshua Pechthalt is president of the California Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, which filed a brief supporting the California Teachers Association in the case. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.