WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court heard arguments Monday that could serve as a severe blow to unions should the court side with California teachers who don’t want to pay union fees.
In Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, the teachers hope the court will overrule its decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. That decision from 1977 allows states to require both members and nonmembers of a union to pay a fair-share fee to prevent free-riding and ensure labor peace in the public sector, so long as that money is not for political actions. Twenty-three states, including California and New York allow such fees.
The case was brought by California elementary school teacher Rebecca Friedrichs and nine other teachers.
“We are asking the court to allow public sector employees — including teachers, police officers and firefighters — to opt out of paying dues to unions we don’t want to be members,” Friedrichs wrote in a Daily News op-ed.
On Monday, Friedrichs’ lawyer, Michael A. Carvin, argued that teachers are required to provide support for a group that they do not support ideologically. He said that unions have become much more politicized, thus violating the teachers’ First Amendment rights.
“There’s a great ongoing debate about teacher training, class size in education reform today,” Carvin said. “The unions have their right to take their side of that view. What they don’t have a view – is a right to demand that the other side subsidize their views on these essential questions of … basic public importance.”
Outside the courthouse, protesters in support of both sides took to the steps to voice their opinions.
“We need to protect agency fee. Otherwise, they’ll break into the unions, and the unions will get weak and we won’t be able to afford decent lawyers and health that we need to stay strong. I believe the unions truly are the front line to protect the middle class,” said Lesa Curtis, 58, a math teacher from Westchester County in New York.
Curtis said she hopes the Supreme Court maintains the status quo of enforcing an agency fee for fear of unions running out of money.
“I worry that even our good members will opt out, because why would you pay if the person next to you doesn’t?” she said.
But the conservative branch of the court signaled during the 80-minute oral hearing that it is leaning in favor of the California teachers. Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said that anything that is bargained for with the government is political, violating the First Amendment rights of those forced to pay union fees.
“The problem is that everything that is collectively bargained with the government is within the political sphere, almost by definition,” Scalia said. “Should the government pay higher wages or lesser wages? Should it promote teachers on the basis of seniority or on the basis of - all of those questions are necessarily political questions.”
Scalia said federal employee unions are prosperous, despite not having agency fees for nonmembers, and asked why California would be any different.
While liberal members of the court, including Justice Elena Kagan, questioned the justifications of challenging the court on a system that has been in place for the past 40 years, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted the politics involved in bargaining with the government.
“Many teachers think that they are devoted to the future of America, to the future of our young people, and that the union is equally devoted to that, but that the union is absolutely wrong in some of its positions,” Kennedy said. “And agency fees require, as I understand it, correct me if I’m wrong, agency fees require that employees and teachers who disagree with those positions must nevertheless subsidize the union on those very points.”
The court is expected to reach a decision by June.
Reach reporter Heather Khalifa at [email protected] or 202-408-1488 and reporter Rebecca Anzel at [email protected] or 202-408-1489. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
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