After spending nearly three decades teaching first graders, Rebecca Friedrichs is suing to opt out of the union she was forced to join in 1988.
Her doubts about teacher unions started in college when she shadowed a teacher at an elementary school.
"The teacher [in the neighboring classroom] was frightening in how she dealt with the children, very aggressive, even physically. I was a naïve college student, so I asked my master teacher about it. She told me about tenure and how it was incredibly difficult to fire anyone," she said. "The kids were out of luck."
Friedrichs put the incident behind her and began teaching full-time in Orange County, CA. public schools in 1988, but remained distrustful of the concept of tenure and the forces that fight to keep bad teachers in classrooms. She joined the California Teachers Association as a condition of employment, but paid partial dues known as agency fees, which represent the percentage of dues that pays for employee representation while leaving out the costs of political activities.
She is now leading nine other California teachers in a lawsuit challenging those agency fees, arguing that forced unionism violates her First Amendment right to freedom of association. Politics, she argues, cannot be separated from public sector unionism. Unions use political leverage to elect their own bosses, who help negotiate sweetheart deals for union members. That money comes out of a government budget that is crafted according to politics.
"They are so politically entrenched that they have become the interest [groups] unions used to fight against," Friedrichs said. "They use their money to elect union-friendly school boardmembers, who then reward the union. The person paying the bill, the taxpayer, doesn’t get invited to the party."
Friedrichs filed the suit with the help of the Center for Individual Rights, a nonprofit public interest law firm. CIR President Terry Pell, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Education, said that the case poses a major challenge to the 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education decision that has protected forced dues payments for public sector unions.
"You can’t require every employee to pay dues to an organization they don’t support," Pell said.
Public sector unions do not have the same clear lines between political activity and collective bargaining activities that private sector unions have, according to Pell. He thinks the claim that government unions are political creatures, rather than labor organizations that happen to have political agendas.
"Unions believe that their members should receive more taxpayer dollars. They make claims on the public treasury, that’s a political position," Pell said. "It’s perfectly reasonable for some teachers to object to exorbitant pensions and salaries when communities are struggling."
Friedrichs eventually joined the union, paying dues in full with the hope that she could "make change from the inside." She sought leadership roles, eventually becoming her work site unit’s acting secretary where she helped manage work-related issues for teachers at her school.
However, the Great Recession erased her hopes in the union system. Dwindling tax collections forced the school to pare back its budget and the district fired young, non-union teachers, rather than deal with the "cumbersome" process of pink slipping a member.
"I approached some of our union reps and said how about we take a voluntary pay cut, a small one, so we could save their jobs," Friedrichs said. "They wouldn’t discuss it and I watched helplessly as [the teachers] were let go. The union held a seminar on how they could file for unemployment instead."
"I was disgusted."
The case has already been expedited by a lower court and will reach the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal in the fall. Pell hopes to get the case in front of the Supreme Court by the spring of 2015. The high court’s labor-related rulings during the 2014 term provided the CIR legal team with a sense of optimism, as they fight to overturn the nearly 40-year-old precedent set in Abood.
Pell pointed to Harris v. Quinn, the June decision that declared that the state of Illinois could no longer force home health workers to pay union dues to care for disabled relatives, as a "reason to be optimistic." The key to their legal strategy is to "decouple the issues of mandatory dues from collective bargaining."
The plaintiffs aren’t looking to cripple unions, they just don’t want to actively aid them.
"The issue of politics has existed all along," Pell said. "In recent decades, it’s just become more problematic and more obvious."