High Court Will Take on Forced Unionism

Grants cert to California Teachers Trying to Fight Union

California teacher Rebecca Friedrichs / AP
California teacher Rebecca Friedrichs / AP
June 30, 2015

The Supreme Court will rule on laws designed to force public employees into unions in its 2016 session after accepting a suit from a California teacher Tuesday.

Rebecca Friedrichs, an elementary school teacher with nearly three decades of experience, filed suit against her Orange County school district and the California Teachers Association, the state’s largest public sector union, in 2014. Friedrichs has paid agency and dues fees to the union since 1988 as a condition of her employment. Her suit, filed with nine other teachers, hopes to end the system of forced unionism in California and state and local government across the country.

Friedrichs launched the suit with legal assistance from the Center for Individual Rights, a non-profit group. Terry Pell, CIR president and a former assistant secretary at the Department of Education, said that the forced unionism threatens constitutional rights to freedom of association and speech.

"This case is about the right of individuals to decide for themselves whether to join and pay dues to an organization that purports to speak on their behalf," Pell said in a statement. "We are seeking the end of compulsory union dues across the nation on the basis of the free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment."

The case challenges a four-decade-old precedent established in Abood v. Detroit (1977). The Supreme Court found in that case that public sector workers have the option to reject full union membership, but still have to pay agency fees associated with representation services, such as collective bargaining negotiations.

The CTA, which has more than 325,000 members, did not return request for comment.

The court has indicated that it is open to revisiting public sector union policy. The granting of cert to Friedrichs comes on the first anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Harris v. Quinn in which the court struck down an Illinois policy forcing home healthcare workers, including those caring for sick and disabled relatives, to pay union dues.

Associate Justice Samuel Alito, who authored the 5-4 opinion, emphasized that the decision applied specifically to home healthcare workers, rather than full public sector workers.

"Unlike full-fledged public employees, [personal assistants] are almost entirely answerable to the customers and not to the State, do not enjoy most of the rights and benefits that inure to state employees, and are not indemnified by the State for claims against them arising from actions taken during the course of their employment," Alito ruled.

Labor watchdogs hailed the court’s decision as an indication that the court may address forced unionism among all government workers. Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Committee, said that the case gives the justices the opportunity to square public sector labor practices with the Constitution and public opinion.

"The question of whether teachers and other government employees can be required to subsidize the speech of a union they do not support as a condition of working for their own government is now squarely before the Court," Mix said in a statement. "The American people overwhelming support the principle that while individual employees should be free to join and pay dues to a union if they so choose, none should be required to do so, which is fully in line with the First Amendment’s protections for Free Speech and Freedom of Association."

Friedrichs and her attorneys waived typical legal maneuvering in the hope of reaching the high court quickly. Friedrichs told the Washington Free Beaconthat she hopes the justices will "put individual rights above the rights of powerful unions."

"We’re asking for simple freedom: the right to decide for ourselves without fear or coercion, whether or not to fund a union and its activities," Friedrichs said. "My fellow plaintiffs and I are delighted to have this opportunity to give a voice to the millions of public sector workers who have been silenced by the tyranny of forced unionism."