There’s been no shortage of high-profile, lighting rod cases making their way to the Supreme Court over the past few years. The Affordable Care Act has survived two challenges, same-sex marriage was given the nod nationwide, and a few big free speech decisions have all been levied by the nation’s highest court – all in 2015 alone.
And to kick off 2016, there’s another big decision looming. One that could have a big impact on public sector unions, which have millions of members nationwide, in as many as 23 states.
The case in question is Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association, and it concerns ‘agency shop’ agreements within public sector unions, and their constitutionality under the First Amendment. The details of these agreements are a bit confusing, particularly to those who have never worked in or been involved with unions. Amy Howe, an editor for the Supreme Court’s official blog SCOTUSblog writes that these agreements essentially require workers who do not wish to join a union to pay associated fees.
“For nearly forty years, it has been settled that, although public employees who don’t join a union cannot be required to pay for the union’s political activities, they can be charged an ‘agency’ or ‘fair share’ fee to pay for other costs that the union incurs – for example, for collective bargaining,” Howe says.
This practice was legalized under another Supreme Court ruling in the 1970s, but it looks like fairly certain that the current bench – with a conservative majority – will overturn that ruling.
What does that mean, exactly? That public sector unions are in a lot of trouble.
At the heart of the issue is the fact that there are public employees – teachers, in this case – who are more or less being compelled to support union activities and messaging through ‘agency’ fees. They must do this whether they join the union or not, as previously mentioned. A small group of California teachers, who opted not to join the teachers union, sued because they did not want to be forced to pay these fees. They’re basically being forced to support an organization, through these fees, against their will.
The Center for Individual Rights, which is behind the lawsuit on behalf of the teachers, makes this very clear in its brief. “While many teachers support the union, others do not and the state cannot constitutionally compel an individual to join and financially support an organization with which he or she disagrees,” the CIR says.
So, what makes this case such a big deal is because of what’s likely to happen as a result of the Court’s ruling (assuming it comes down in the way that everyone is expecting). First, this keeps up the notion that money equals speech, which was made famous by the notorious Citizen’s United ruling which paved the way for tons of cash into the electoral system. Secondly, the ruling could significantly hurt unions, which will suffer as a result of lost dues.
On one hand, it’s hard to sympathize with the idea that someone should be forced to fork over money to support messages or organizations that they don’t necessarily agree with. On the other hand, unions have and continue to do a lot of positive things for labor in this country, even though there is a good helping of ugliness that often comes along with them.
Another important caveat here to take into account is that even though these teachers have opted not to joint the union, they’re still benefiting from what the union does in terms of collective bargaining. That’s the logic as to why the ‘agency fees’ exist in the first place. Even though they don’t necessarily have to join the union’s ranks, some feel that non-members should pony up since the union is still fighting on their behalf.
But, as it looks right now, the Supreme Court is likely to strike down this setup.
For union members and supporters, this could be a big hit. The worry is that many people who benefit from the union’s activity will stop supporting it financially, and that labor’s power will be further eroded, as it has been significantly already.
This is troubling for the middle class, which is already significantly strained – which is why it’s important to pay attention to this particular case.