Supreme Court case has big implications for unions

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If you’re looking for a rumble with nationwide implications for public-employee unions—as well as election-year intrigue—keep an eye on the Supreme Court as it debates Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association in the Court’s new term starting in October.

This appeal began in Orange County as public school teacher Rebecca Friedrichs and her coworkers challenged the requirement to pay union dues to the California Teachers Association. Even though Friedrichs isn’t a member of her teacher’s union, California—a “fair share state”—requires that she pay the non-member rate (about $650 yearly as opposed to the member rate of around $1,000) because the union negotiates on behalf of members and non-members alike.

“Right to work” versus “free-riders”

Friedrichs’s appeal made it all the way to the Supreme Court as a result of numerous actions throughout the states, such as the well-publicized decision of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to sign legislation making Wisconsin the twenty-fifth “right-to-work” state. (Right-to-work laws grant employees the right to determine whether or not they want to join or support a union.)

Even the term “right-to-work” is a point of contention; some people prefer to call these states “free-riders,” since non-union members pay no dues at all to their unions. The union gives them a “free ride” because it negotiates for members and non-members alike.

“Right now, each [public-sector employee] union is governed by state labor laws. The union dues that they collect—that’s the life blood. It allows the union to have staff members that they can employ for day-to-day operations,” explains Todd A. Lyon, Partner at Fisher & Phillips LLP. “Plenty of unions, however, don’t have staff and instead retain outside lawyers to take care of the union’s business.”

“Unions also use dues monies for political contributions,” Lyon says. “For many employees, that is really what this case is about: employees don’t want to have their dues money going toward candidates that their union wants to support.”

Time to adjust public sector bargaining laws?

The U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that in deciding the Friedrichs case they will address Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the 1977 decision that affirmed the right of public-employee unions to access a “service charge” for their representation of non-union members. Thus the court has signaled that it will provide a potentially new federal perspective on what is now being decided state by state.

“[The Friedrichs case] looks at the changes that began in Wisconsin, which ultimately prohibited mandatory union dues. Those changes have swept across the country and have significantly changed the public sector labor landscape,” says Lyon. “State governments have decided there needs to be some reform in public sector bargaining. Certainly unions viewed this as an attack, but it can also be characterized as reform.”

“These statutes were born in the early ‘70s and were modeled after the private sector law created in the ‘30s. Today, we are seeing some adjustments to those public sector statutes that are now 40 years old.”

If public employee unions lose their clout, what happens to workers?

Many union supporters feel some trepidation about this fall’s Supreme Court debate and any resulting decisions. “I’m not a legal scholar, but it’s hard to look at the current makeup of the court and not think that the verdict is likely to be against public unions,” says Celi Clark Haga, communications coordinator for the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources and a full member of Minnesota Association of Professional Employees.

“If you’re being represented by the union in contract negotiations, paying a fee for that representation makes sense,” says Haga. “If unions lose those funds, they’ll have substantially less power at the bargaining table. Workers take a hit: lower (if any) salary increases, decrease in benefits coverage. I think this means it’ll be a lot harder to find people to work in the public sector.”

Whatever the Court decides, make no mistake, this will be a battle for the history books, with strong opinions from legal scholars, labor activists, and almost certainly, presidential candidates. “It’s definitely going to rock the public sector union world,” says Lyon. “The decision is going to have an effect on what unions can do locally for its members and it’s going to have an impact on the national presidential election.”

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