The State Worker

Her lawsuit almost crippled California unions. This is how she thinks they can survive.

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California unions got a break two years ago when the Supreme Court deadlocked on a lawsuit from an Orange County teacher that challenged their ability to collect fees from workers who didn’t want to belong to them.

That reprieve could end as early as this week if the court hands down an expected ruling in a similar case, Janus vs. AFSCME, that also aims to prevent unions from charging so-called fair share fees.

If the ax falls, the teacher behind the original lawsuit thinks unions will still be relevant, and that many of her peers would still want to participate in them. But Rebecca Friedrichs thinks their future is in close, local representation instead of the big statewide organizations that influence state and national politics.

She said she’s talked with thousands of teachers since she became well-known as a union critic a decade ago. She says they ask her, “Is there a way I can remain in my local and withdraw from the state and national” teacher unions?

That means they want to participate in the local branch of the teacher union, but don't want to keep paying dues to the massive California Teachers Association or the National Education Association.

She visited The Sacramento Bee editorial board on Tuesday with representatives from two other organizations that tend to be critical of public employee unions’ influence over state governments, the California Policy Center and Michigan’s Mackinac Center.

Their side senses victory with President Donald Trump’s appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court tilting the balance in their favor. Unions expect the same result, and have been running membership drives and lobbying for new labor-friendly laws to bolster their strength.

Friedrichs, 52, left her job as a teacher in the Savanna School District earlier this year after a two-year leave of absence. She's writing a book and working with right-to-work organizations.

She said she began to break with CTA a decade ago when she and her husband attended a teacher convention. They encountered a number of booths that they considered to be political, such as Planned Parenthood and a mix of gay rights organizations.

Friedrichs is a Republican, and thought the informational booths were not related to her work. She said she would have felt the same irritation had she seen right-leaning organizations, like ones that promote school vouchers.

"It was all politics," she said. "I thought my money was going to a labor union to protect me as a worker."

When the recession set in, Friedrichs suggested that teachers take a pay cut to protect younger workers from last-in-first-out layoffs. It was a nonstarter for the union. She felt isolated and criticized for going against the majority.

"I'm just tired of being bullied," she said.

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Union leaders view the lawsuit, and Friedrichs' before it, as an attempt to undercut them at the bargaining table and in political campaigns.

“Like Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which the Court rejected two years ago, Janus is an attempt to make it harder for educators to come together and advocate for things like smaller class sizes, safer schools, parent involvement, and better communities.,” CTA President Eric Heins said in February when the court heard arguments in the case.

California public employee union leaders anticipate a wide range of outcomes. Some unions might hold on to the vast majority of their members. Others could lose a third to half of full-paying members, potentially crippling their finances.

Vincent Vernuccio of the right-leaning Mackinac Center has studied Michigan's unions since the state enacted a right-to-work law banning fair share fees in 2012. Union membership has declined in the years since then, but it spikes in some years. Membership in the United Autoworkers has been growing, for instance.

That tells him that "unions are going to have step up their game and show that membership has a value," he said.

They've been working on it. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association recently struck a one-year contract with Gov. Jerry Brown that gives its 27,000 members a raise. Members of Service Employees International Union Local 1000, state government's largest union, this month elected three new vice presidents who pledged to give them more close and personal attention in the workplace.

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About that big raise

CCPOA started counting ballots on its contract this week. The Legislature has already approved it and sent it to the governor.

A handful of Republican lawmakers voted against it, calling it too pricey. The Legislative Analyst's Office has also criticized it, saying the Brown administration has a weak argument to "justify the large pay increase."

"The costs of incarcerating a prisoner in California are the highest in the country and this is one of the reasons. That’s why it’s hard to justify this size of a salary increase," Assemblyman Jay Obernolte, R-Big Bear, said at a budget hearing last week.

CalHR Director Richard Gillihan reported that the Brown administration considers the contract to be in line with raises that state attorneys, engineers and scientists received recently.

The contract "recognizes the critical work and the dangerous environment that our correctional officers face every day protecting Californians and the inmates in their custody."

The contract passed in the Assembly by a vote of 70-5 and in the Senate by 30-3. CCPOA could have its ballots counted as early as Wednesday.

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