Labor unions have had a tremendous impact on U.S. workers and workplaces for well over a century. But, it’s no secret that unions, in general, are in a bit of trouble these days. And, certain public-sector unions, specifically, could be about to sustain a punishing blow from the U.S. Supreme Court. Let’s take a closer look at the case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. Here’s what you need to know.
(Photo Credit: Jeff Kubina/Flickr)
1. 10 million public-sector unions could be impacted by the decision.
Public-sector unions, or government unions, are made of individuals that work for the government on the state, federal, and local levels. The specific unions that are a part of this case are state employees from the 23 states that mandate that individuals must pay union dues (or something like it – as a “fair share service fee” or “agency fee”) even when they have opted out of joining. The unions this decision could affect are about 10 million strong, and mostly made up of public school teachers, police officers, and other government employees from the 23 states in question.
2. Some are arguing that non-union members shouldn’t have to pay union fees.
In the state of California, as in the other 22 states that are a part of this case, public-sector workers like teachers and police officers are required to pay union dues even when they have opted out of joining the union. Because the unions are responsible for negotiating everyone’s contracts (union members and non-union member alike) fees are collected for collective bargaining actions, which include lobbying activities as well as contract negotiations. The California public school teachers who brought this case feel that mandating their contribution to the union violates their First Amendment rights to disagree with the union and not support it financially.
3. The situation is already different for unions and workers in Right-to-Work states.
About half of U.S. states are now Right-to-Work states. Here, workers are not required to contribute to unions even when all workers are being represented at the bargaining table. Unions suffer when this happens, as they are considerably weakened by the lack of financial support. Not only do unions lose the dues of those who don’t support them, they also lose out on fees from other members once those fees aren’t mandated. If the union will negotiate for them either way, why join and pay for the service? Concerning this court case, unions fear the loss of tens of millions of dollars which will lessen their ability to fight for higher wages and better overall compensation for teachers, police, sanitation workers, and the other government employees they represent. In some cases, the blow could even send unions into bankruptcy.
4. Those who support unions aren’t feeling optimistic about the ruling to come.
It seems likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will rule against the unions. The road they’ve taken on these kinds of cases is long, but regardless of past rulings, the court seems ready to go in this direction judging from comments from justices during arguments earlier this week. Some had pinned their hopes on Justice Antonin Scalia potentially tipping the scales for unions, based upon some of his prior votes and pronouncements, but after his recent comments, it seems the court is more than likely to rule against the unions. Justice Scalia seemed to indicate that he feels unions could survive nonetheless:
“Why do you think that the union would not survive without these fees charged to nonmembers of the union? Federal employee unions do not charge agency fees to nonmembers, and they seem to survive. Indeed, they prosper.” Justice Scalia also said, “The problem is that it is not the same as a private employer, that what is bargained for is, in all cases, a matter of public interest, and that changes the situation.”
Only time will tell the impact it will have on unions in the future. If history is any indication though, this could be the beginning of the end for certain public-sector unions.
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