Supreme Court Set to Review Forced Union Contributions from Teachers
On January 11th of the New Year, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the oral arguments for Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association et al., a case that has the potential to turn the teachers’ unions’ world – along with all other public sector unions’ – upside down. Rebecca Friedrichs and her fellow plaintiffs are teachers asking the justices to overturn their earlier decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which allows public sector unions to charge a fee to non-members for collective bargaining services. Friedrichs and the Center for Individual Rights (CIR), which is representing her, are arguing that, in the public sector, collective bargaining itself is inherently political, since taxpayers instead of private company owners are on the other side of the bargaining table.
Teachers’ unions, like other unions, spend a great deal of money engaging in explicitly political activity like lobbying legislators and supporting candidates. While the First Amendment’s protections against compelled speech already ensure non-members’ contributions cannot be used for these overtly political activities against their wishes (as registered by an opt-out), the plaintiffs in Friedrichs argue when the money for pay raises and pension contracts comes from the public pocket, even those union activities limited to job conditions and compensation are political in nature. For example, per CIR’s website, union negotiations for “specific class sizes” or “pressing a local government to spend tax dollars on teacher pensions rather than on building parks,” are clearly political and public controversies in a way contributions to employees’ 401k plans at a private company are not.
Teachers’ unions have so far represented the strongest political challenge to transformative education reform, such as charter schools, voucher programs and education savings accounts. Unfortunately, that clout is built, at least in part, on the forced contributions of teachers who do not necessarily agree with the actions of the unions.
If Friedrichs and CIR prevail in the Supreme Court, teachers’ unions would still be able to exist but would be forbidden from forcing workers to contribute to the union as a condition of employment. If allowing teachers their freedom from compelled speech has the side effect of weakening the teachers’ unions’ stranglehold on education politics, so much the better for students, teachers and school choice. A decision from the court is anticipated by the end of June 2016.