Published in the April 28, 2016 Santa Maria Times.
In July 2015 I devoted a column to the Friedrichs vs. CTA case, which was on its way to the Supreme Court and hanging over the heads of public-sector unions like the sword of Damocles.
The case revolved around a suit brought by some K-12 teachers against their union, the California Teachers Association. The plaintiffs recruited by anti-union Silicon Valley millionaires claimed having to pay union dues violated their free-speech rights, since the union sometimes supported causes or candidates they did not agree with.
At stake was the unions’ ability to collect a service fee from members of its bargaining unit who prefer to not actually join the union. Because public-sector unions, by law, must represent everyone in their bargaining unit — who, by the way, benefit from whatever gains the union might negotiate for them — an appeals court ruled in the 1977 Abood vs. Detroit case that the service fee was appropriate.
The plaintiffs in the Friedrichs case wanted to overturn the Abood decision and be exempt from paying the service fee, and had they prevailed, public employee unions, including the Part-Time Faculty Association, would have been dealt a body blow.
The Friederichs case was fast-tracked through the court system with the plaintiffs admitting defeat at each level of the court system and then appealing to the next court, until they finally made their way to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear their case last June.
The plaintiffs were counting on the court voting 5-4 in their favor, since all indications were pointing in that direction. But the death of Antonin Scalia in February changed the court’s ideological makeup dramatically, and the court announced it was split 4-4 on Friederichs, which means the lower court’s Abood decision remains in place.
It is worth noting that in the public sector, a non-member has the option of not paying that part of the service fee that is devoted to political causes. Public-sector unions are held to a standard that does not apply to corporations or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
In another important ruling, the Supreme Court in 1986 in Teachers vs. Hudson found that an agency fee payer can elect to have that part of the service fee used for political purposes rebated to them every month. The ruling requires that every year each non-member of a bargaining unit receive a letter informing them of this right, and of the percentage they are eligible to have rebated to them.
Due to changing circumstances, this amount varies from year to year. It is currently 6 percent at the PFA, and we devote much time to making sure the Hudson notice information is accurate and that each non-member understands his/her rights to opt out of what are known as the non-chargeables of their service fee.
With Friedrichs now a bad memory, public employee unions can breathe a collective sigh of relief. But the nation’s firefighters, police officers, nurses and teachers who are represented by these unions know that while Friedrichs is dead, it is certainly not forgotten, and the anti-union forces that gave rise to Friedrichs are not going away.
More cases like Friedrichs are coming, all of them with the same goal in mind — to destroy unions and turn the entire country into what is misleadingly called a right-to-work state. But if the middle class is ever going to rebuild, unions must be preserved in order to lead the way.
Mark James Miller, President, Part-Time Faculty Association of Allan Hancock College, CFT Local 6185, Santa Maria, CA