On June 30 the U.S. Supreme Court sent a shock wave through organized labor by agreeing to hear arguments in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, to determine whether public-sector unions could still require workers who opt out of union membership to pay some dues. The suit seeks to overturn a 1977 decision, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which held that unions could charge non-members an “agency shop” fee to cover costs related to representation in collective bargaining.
Conservatives argue that unions are inherently political, and so forcing workers to support them financially violates free speech rights. If the court’s conservative majority overturns the precedent, government workers could opt out of dues payments in droves, severely crippling the financing of public employee unions, a pivotal part of the American labor movement.
Unions argue that non-members should pay a smaller membership fee because they reap the benefits from union representation — everything from high quality health and dental plans to protections against arbitrary terminations. But last year, in ruling narrowly against unions in Harris v. Quinn, the Court indicated its interest in hearing a free speech challenge to overturn the four-decade-old precedent.
The fear of a nationwide right-to-work regime, in which unions can make no claims on any workers despite representing their interests, is not far-fetched. Even the liberal wing of the court has recently ruled against labor. And despite unions’ importance for workers’ rights, it is often difficult to convince government employees to pay their dues. Still, in some states with right-to-work laws, unions have been successful in retaining membership. In fact, recent data show that right-to-work legislation in Indiana hasn’t caused a change for unions there.
But some labor activists are bracing for a deathblow to the public sector unions, especially among lower-paid workers who in tight economic times are looking for any way to increase their take-home pay.
“The elephant in the room is that plenty of represented workers aren’t enthusiastic about their unions,” Labor Notes staff writer, Samantha Winslow, observed earlier this month. “Some see them as the contract, pure and simple — an insurance policy at best, not something that gets your blood moving. Others have the opposite gripe — that their unions focus on advocating for causes far removed from members’ day-to-day work.”
In other words, even some labor advocates have admitted that the automatic-dues payment system for all workers has made unions complacent, and labor’s enemies are taking advantage of that.
A right-to-work regime could mean far less money for government workers’ unions, which means less representation, fewer lawyers and fewer member services. For those of us who work in the public-sector labor movement (I edit a magazine published by a government union), careers hang in the balance. Dramatic reductions in operational resources will most certainly end up in staff reductions.
In a sense, this effort represents yet another way in which conservatives in government have chipped away at organized labor, particularly after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker abolished collective bargaining rights in the state in 2011. Indeed, the Center for Individual Rights, the public interest law firm that seeks to establish conservative policy through the courts, has pushed the Friedrichs case.
Still this case goes beyond a simple assault on organized labor. The push to overturn Abood is a conservative attack on the government itself, since these public employee unions advocate for more government funding and services. For example, these unions often push officials to allocate more resources to public services rather than, say, subsidies for real estate development.
“When people come together in a union, they can help make sure that our communities have jobs that support our families,” a group of labor leaders said in a statement, responding to the news that the high court would hear the case. “It means teachers can stand up for their students. First responders can push for critical equipment to protect us. And social workers can advocate effectively for children’s safety.”
Since the Reagan era, the Republican Party has been trying to limit the government’s ability to provide services, either through direct legislation or regressive taxation that results in austerity budgets. And since the Bill Clinton administration the Democratic Party, which is historically the party of organized labor, has moved toward corporate donors, leaving few advocates for more public services.
Unions, with their steady flow of membership dues, are the only public organizations that can conduct media campaigns, lobby lawmakers, challenge high profile court cases and advocate for the importance of government services and public education. For example, in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, unions are the primary legal and political defense against issues such as school privatization. Reducing their financial muscle lessens the power of grassroots advocacy and organizing, thereby increasing the speed and likelihood of privatization of various public services, everything from ambulance services to the post office both at local and federal levels.
The Supreme Court’s decision to hear the public employee union case may force unions to launch rank-and-file education campaigns to retain members. But, regardless of the efficacy of that effort, the fate of public-sector unions is now beyond their control.
The nine-member Court, which despite its recent momentous decisions on the Affordable Care Act and same-sex marriage, has sided against progressive causes and with corporate power numerous times before. It is expected to rule on the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case some time next year. And the effect of upending Abood won’t just be fewer protections for government workers, but a reduction in many government programs that many people take for granted.
The Court is a keystone of a democratic government, not a part of a privatization wrecking crew. Overturning Abood would be damaging both for the nation and the Court’s legacy.