The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Monday in a case that threatens to upend nearly forty years of precedent and deal a major blow to public unions across the country.
The case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, brought by the conservative Center for Individual Rights (CIR), revolves around unions’ fair share fees. Once a majority of workers vote to be represented by a public sector union, the union must represent all workers, even non-union members. Every worker, therefore, benefits from the union’s collective bargaining. As a result, public sector unions are allowed to collect fair-share fees from non-union members in order to prevent “free riders” from receiving union benefits without contributing to the cost of providing those benefits. No one is forced to join the union, and no one is required to pay any other fees, such as fees used for political activities.
The Supreme Court held in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, a 1977 decision, that it is constitutional for public sector unions to collect fair share fees from non-union members. CIR, however, argues that fair share fees violate the First Amendment and is asking the Court to overturn Abood – a move that some advocates say could reduce union membership and weaken the ability of unions to negotiate fair pay and safer workplaces.
“This case is about our students, our public schools and our country’s economic future,” said California Teachers Association President Eric C. Heins. “Providing a quality public education for every student starts with educators having the ability to come together and make decisions for their students, as well as negotiating fair wages that attract the brightest minds into our profession. Undermining the collective bargaining process undermines the middle class.”
During oral arguments, the conservative majority of the Court seemed to be critical of the unions’ argument. In 2014, the Court ruled in Harris v. Quinn that fair share fees could not be required of home care workers because they were not fully public employees. In that case, a 5-4 majority of the Court declined to overturn Abood.
In a statement, Heins called Friedrichs “an attempt to shift the balance away from workers and in the favor of corporate interests,” said Heins. “That’s apparent by the wealthy special interests funding the lawsuit. This case has nothing to do with what’s good for students or working families.”
A decision in Friedrichs is expected in the summer.
Media Resources: Politico 1/11/16; Supreme Court of the United States 1/11/16; California Teachers Association Press Release 1/11/16; Black Press of America 1/11/16