The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on Jan. 11 in a case that will decide whether or not it is constitutional for public sector unions to require “fair share fees” from public employees who have refused to join.
In a 1977 Supreme Court case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, it was ruled that while public unions cannot require fees from employees who have not joined a union to pay for their political and management costs, they can be required to pitch in union dues to help pay for negotiating contracts.
This ruling was designed to cut down on the number of “free riders,” or public employees who enjoy the benefits of unions negotiating their contracts without having to pay any financial compensation.
Twenty-three states currently host public sector unions that require “fair share fees.”
The new court case calls for the reversal of Abood v. Detroit, and a number of Supreme Court justices have indicated the unions will lose this battle.
The public face of this lawsuit is California third-grade teacher Rebecca Friedrichs, who has refused to join a teacher’s union and no longer wants to pay the $650 “fair share” dues she is required to pay each year.
“The union’s supposed financial benefits aren’t worth the moral cost,” said Friedrichs, according to NPR. “They protect teachers who are no longer effective in the classroom ... and they’re more focused on self-preservation than they are on educating little children.”
Friedrichs added that her “fair share dues” are “used to promote the union’s political agenda,” violating her First Amendment right of free speech and association.
Justice Anthony Kennedy showed sympathy for Friedrichs’ position during the Jan. 11 hearing.
“Many teachers strongly, strongly disagree with the union position on teacher tenure, on merit pay, on merit promotion, on classroom size,” Kennedy said, according to NBC News.
The justice concluded that paying “fair share dues” means that “employees and teachers who disagree with those positions must nevertheless subsidize the union on those very points.”
Union representatives have expressed concern for how a a Supreme Court reversal of Abood v. Detroit would impact their membership numbers and power to negotiate contracts.
Cornell University lecturer Kate Bronfenbrenner told The Atlantic that a ruling against the unions in this case could consolidate that growing opposition to collective bargaining across the U.S. and “forever change the rights of public-sector workers.”
The outcome could also have a highly political impact. Public unions have been a reliable donor base for the Democratic Party, and supporters fear that slashing their financial power will lead to more Republicans winning elections.
“If this goes the wrong way for the unions, they’re going to have a lot less money, period,” Center for Responsive Politics spokeswoman Viveca Novak told The Atlantic. “They’ll have less money to spend, and the Democratic Party will lose a big source of its support.”