A case before the U.S. Supreme Court this year could pose the gravest threat to unions in the history of the modern U.S. labor movement, labor experts say.
Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association challenges the “fair share” requirement that public-sector workers in unionized jobs who choose not to join their union must still pay their fair share of the cost of union representation and services.
The case was brought by 10 teachers from California and the Christian Educators Association International who are represented by the conservative Center for Individual Rights in what is the latest and perhaps most serious in a series of concerted attacks on unions by the well-heeled far right.
A Supreme Court decision in favor of the plaintiffs could strip public-sector unions of the ability to collect so-called agency fees from nonmembers represented by the union, which could have a financially devastating impact on unions, said Joshua Freeman, a labor historian at the City University of New York.
“Unions will not be able to do things as they’ve done in the past,” Freeman said. “They’ll have to cut costs.”
Unions are legally obligated to represent all workers in their bargaining units, regardless of whether the workers are union members or not. Federal case law stretching back nearly four decades to the 1977 case, Abood v. the Detroit Board of Education, explicitly permits public-sector unions to collect agency fees from nonmembers because they benefit from the representation and services provided.
The Friedrichs lawsuit aims to overturn the precedent set in the Abood decision, with the plaintiffs intentionally speeding the case’s passage to the Supreme Court by asking lower courts to apply the existing case law and rule against them.
The ultimate purpose by those backing the suit is to erode public-sector unions’ financial viability, thereby diminishing their ability to advocate on behalf of their members and defend public services, such as public education, said Nelson Lichtenstein, a historian at the University of California–Santa Barbara who studies conservative politics and ideology as they pertain to the labor movement.
“Unions are mobilizing institutions that are at the center of the Democratic Party, and that’s more important than actual money,” Lichtenstein said. “Conservatives understand that and would like to weaken them.”
A Supreme Court decision in the Friedrichs plaintiffs’ favor could fulfill that anti-union agenda in a single stroke, Lichtenstein said.
To understand how the Friedrichs case could hurt unions, some observers point to the impact of so-called “right-to-work” legislation, which also abolishes the agency-fee requirement. After Michigan’s right-to-work law took effect in 2013, overall union membership in the state fell 7.5 percent or by about 50,000 members in just over a year.
It is unclear how the Supreme Court will vote. Although three of the court’s conservative justices have indicated support for abolishing agency fees, a fourth, Antonin Scalia, has previously shown opposition to letting public-sector workers benefit from union representation without paying for it.
Unions aren’t waiting for a ruling.
Public-sector unions like the American Federation of Teachers are gearing up for the possibility of an unfavorable court decision by launching large-scale campaigns to engage workers about the importance of union membership. The key, they said, is to organize.
“Our goal is to have one-on-one conversations with 100 percent of our members, to double the number of activists and to triple those who are engaged in their union during AFT’s 100th year” in 2016, said AFT President Randi Weingarten. “This is the antidote to Friedrichs and all other attacks on worker rights.”