California teacher Rebecca Friedrichs seemed close to ending forced union dues in the public-sector before an unexpected turn made her lose at the highest court. She detailed how that fight has continued in the two years since while talking with InsideSources.
The U.S. Supreme Court looked likely to rule in her favor when it finally heard the case in early 2016. She alleged alongside nine other teachers that mandatory union dues or fees in the public-sector were a violation of their constitutional rights. The challenge was intended to set a legal precedent to outlaw all mandatory union payments across the public-sector.
Friedrichs and the other teachers eventually lost the case after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. His death split the court which resulted in a tied vote by the justices. Illinois state worker Mark Janus was able to bring an identical challenge back to the court when his lawsuit was heard by the justices Feb. 26.
Scalia was expected to rule on the side of the teachers but his passing occurred before the court issued its decision. Friedrichs knew they had lost when the news came but quickly resolved to keep fighting against forced dues. And she fought the best way she knew how as a teacher – by educating people on what was going on.
“Throughout my 28 years as a teacher, I have talked to thousands of teachers,” Friedrichs told InsideSources. “Most have no idea that their forced dues are being used for a political agenda. No idea. They have the right to know that. They should know where their money is going. And they should be given the choice of whether they want their money to go there or not.”
Janus actually attended oral arguments in the Friedrichs case two years prior while his case was still working its way through the lower courts. Friedrichs returned the favor by organizing a group of teachers who traveled to Washington D.C. so that they could rally in support when his case was heard. She notes they have become friends since her case.
“I think it’s very important that teachers, parents, and students be at the Mark Janus rally because forced unionism has damaged everyone, but it has really damaged our schools,” Friedrichs said. “It has really damaged our students, our parents, our teachers, and our profession. Like I said, they divided us. My main goal this week is to bring people back together.”
Friedrichs has done a lot over the last two years to fight back against forced union payments. She is working to publish a book called “Standing Up To Goliath” that will detail her own fight against the California Teachers Association. She has also given talks on the issue and started a nonprofit called For Kids and Country.
“The other thing I have witnessed over and over is unions shouting down parents at school board meetings, unions shouting down teachers, silencing us, degrading our profession,” Friedrichs said. “So when I see my colleagues, students, and parents get hurt, I just can’t sit back and say nothing. So I fight for them by speaking up.”
Friedrichs argues that teachers’ unions pit teachers and parents against each other to advance their political agenda. For Kids and Country was started to promote reform that put the safety and needs of children and teachers before the demands of unions. She is also starting a campaign called Adopt a Teacher which is intended to encourage people to support teachers who may feel isolated in the toxic workplace, she argues, that unions create.
“I’m an educator at heart,” Friedrichs said. “I believe if we can teach the American people what’s really going on in these unions, they’ll reject it. They’ll say that’s wrong. It’s so obvious, you don’t force people to fund a political agenda.”
Both legal challenges allege that union payments in the public-sector should be optional because they are inherently political. The U.S. Constitution bans compelled speech – including being forced to fund political activities. Labor unions currently can require payments from nonmembers so long as they have the option of paying a nonpolitical fair-share fee.
The fair-share fee can only cover the cost of representing that worker and nothing political. Labor unions and their supporters argue the fee is needed to avoid what is known as the free-rider problem. Once a union becomes the exclusive representative for a workplace they have to represent every worker regardless of whether they pay.
The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the right of unions to collect mandatory payments during the 1977 case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. The court in that case also established the nonpolitical fair-share fee. Friedrichs and her lawyers contested that public-sector collective bargaining is indistinguishable from political lobbying.
“The unions collect billions through forced union dues from middle-class people like myself,” Friedrichs said. “They spend these billions on the union political and social agenda. The unions supposedly speak to represent me and other teachers. No, they are not speaking on my behalf. The unions are speaking out on behalf of union leadership. They are just using my money to do it.”
Those opposed to mandatory union payments have also argued that many workers are being forced to accept union representation. Some workers might not even want the benefits their workplace union is fighting for – but still are legally obligated to fund those activities. Friedrichs notes that her union used her own money to fight her in court.
“We should not be forced to fund an organization against our will,” Friedrichs said. “Now if that organization is going to force us to accept their representation, that’s their problem. They’re the ones forcing it on us. It was the unions that asked for the permission from the government to be our exclusive representative. That’s the first thing they ask for.”
Friedrichs and others like her consider themselves to be forced-riders. She notes that when workers decide to become nonmembers they lose their ability to vote at union meetings and get punished in other ways like having their liability insurance revoked. But while they are being punished by the union they are still obligated to fund it.
Labor unions have also argued that mandatory fees serve a compelling state interest in keeping labor peace. Laws or policies that interfere with fundamental constitutional rights must have a compelling state interest to justify that impact. They argue it helps with negotiations and labor unrest by making it clear which unions the state is negotiating with.
“People who say that have never been forced to fund a union because these government unions are so mean to us if we dare to question them,” Friedrichs said. “They harass us to such a degree that there is a total lack of peace. I guess it gives peace to the government because they don’t have to bargain with so many people, but it’s not giving any peace to the workers.”
Friedrichs notes that they could also become member-only unions but decide not to because they lose exclusive bargaining rights – which blocks other labor groups from trying to organize a unionized workplace. She argues that unions create the free-rider problem for themselves by pursuing exclusive representation.
Labor movement supporters argue that unions are critical to protecting workers and upholding their rights. They warn that optional dues could diminish the ability of unions to fulfill that goal because some workers might free-ride on the benefits. They also argue that the legal challenges are a corporate ploy to undermine those protections.
The Center for Individual Rights worked alongside a handful of worker choice groups to help the teachers in their challenge. Friedrichs notes that she didn’t have a voice until advocacy groups with political sway and funding came in to help her. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation was also highly supportive of her lawsuit and is now helping Janus with his case.
“I’m one little elementary school teacher,” Friedrichs said. “I don’t have any money, I don’t have any power, I don’t have big money behind me. For 25 years I had no voice. I served as a union representative to try to gain a voice within the union. They squelched me. They basically told my colleagues and I, don’t you dare question what the union is doing.”
Friedrichs adds that when teachers did speak out they were shunned or verbally attacked. She wrote an op-ed for local newspapers and tried to get her story out but it was difficult at first. She was finally able to get her story out when she caught the attention of national advocacy groups. She started to gain a voice little by little after that.
“We were shut down,” Friedrichs said. “I couldn’t make a difference from the inside which is why it was so liberating when some folks who had support from donors agreed with us. They got behind us in our lawsuit. These teachers have a story to tell.”
The U.S. Supreme Court could make a decision in the Janus case at anytime in the coming months with a ruling that is likely to come around when the current term ends in June. Justice Neil Gorsuch was appointed to fill the empty seat and is likely to become the deciding vote since the other justices are unlikely to change their vote from the last case.
Labor unions could lose a lot if the justices rule against mandatory dues. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the union membership rate stands at 34.4 percent for public-sector workers, but only 6.5 percent for private. But the true impact is still unknown since its unclear how many workers will actually choose to leave.