On Monday, the Supreme Court heard oral argument for what could be its most important case of the year. Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association asks a simple question: can public-sector unions force their employees to pay dues?
The lead plaintiff, Rebecca Friedrichs, has over 28 years of experience as an elementary school teacher. She became disillusioned with her union, the CTA, after its collective bargaining stances led to several good teachers at her school being fired because they lacked seniority. Her co-plaintiffs’ stories are all similarly frustrating.
Though she’s no longer a member of the CTA, state law still forces Friedrichs to pay the union’s “agency fees.” The CTA argues that because Friedrichs “benefits” from the contract the union negotiates, she should have to support the collective bargaining process that yields the agreement.
What’s the union is really saying is, “We don’t trust teachers to freely choose whether we’re right for them, so we’d rather take the choice away.”
This tramples on First Amendment rights and our innate sense of basic fairness by forcing teachers to support political speech they fundamentally disagree with. California already allows teachers to opt out of a portion of union dues that go to more overt political advocacy, but it’s not that simple when your salary comes from taxpayers.
Justice Scalia laid it out on Monday:
The problem is that everything that is collectively bargained with the government is within the political sphere, almost by definition. Should the government pay higher wages or lesser wages? Should it promote teachers on the basis of seniority or on the basis of [merit?] All of those questions are necessarily political questions.
Reasonable people can disagree on what the solutions to those questions are, and Friedrichs isn’t asking the Court to decide on them one way or the other. All she wants is to not be forced to pay a union that supports only one side of those debates.
Friedrichs and her allies want their colleagues who like their union to be able to keep it. The plaintiffs aren’t trying to “free ride” off the contract; they’re not even asking for CTA representation. There’s nothing wrong with letting those who dislike the union opt out and negotiate contracts individually, as has worked well in almost every charter school in the U.S.
If Freidrichs wins, it’s not going to be the end of public-sector unions nationwide, like her alarmist opponents claim. Half the country already has right-to-work legislation that allows employees to opt out of paying union fees against their will. Unions have not only survived, but actually expanded membership in some states where workers know their individual “opt-ins” are more important.
A win for Friedrichs would be much simpler. It would allow for the freedom of speech that she and her allies deserve—the freedom government employees in 25 states already enjoy. No one should have to pay a union against their will to be able to keep a job.
Thanks to Rebecca Friedrichs, we’re a big step closer to that being a reality.