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Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association: A Deceptive Attack on Organized Labor

01/04/2016 06:28 pm ET | Updated Jan 04, 2016
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The United States Supreme Court will soon hear oral arguments in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association (CTA), a lawsuit with major implications for the future of organized labor. While it purports to be about free speech rights, Friedrichs is actually a deceptive attack on unions.

Many California public school teachers working in traditional school districts are CTA members by default. CTA collects dues from members, some of which are "chargeable" -- that is, applied to the costs of collective bargaining and classified as apolitical -- and the rest of which are "nonchargeable," or classified as political.

The plaintiffs in Friedrichs seek to overturn Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which in 1977 established that, while public sector unions could not require member contributions to nonchargeable spending, they could charge all employees for chargeable spending (activities related to "collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment purposes").

The plaintiffs' argument boils down to the following: All spending by the union is inherently political. Mandatory employee contributions to it thus constitute "compelled speech," which is generally prohibited by the first amendment. According to the plaintiffs, the Supreme Court was wrong in Abood when it asserted that the importance of promoting "labor peace" and preventing "free rides" justifies making chargeable dues mandatory.

This argument is deeply flawed on several levels. First, chargeable dues contributions are a condition of a specific type of employment -- they aren't "compelled" by any reasonable definition of the word. Teachers who dislike this employment condition are perfectly free to seek employment at a non-unionized school. Unless the plaintiffs consider all conditions of employment in any profession to be "compelled," which I doubt they do, they can't logically argue that chargeable dues contributions are.

Second, there are also numerous other circumstances in which some form of membership dues is required. I, for example, support very little of our government's defense spending, but I still have to pay the portion of my taxes that fund it. Or, as Gordon Lafer explains, consider that lawyers must pay mandatory fees to practice law and condominium owners are required to pay association fees.

Third, while the distinction between political and nonpolitical activity is undoubtedly fuzzy, we draw seemingly arbitrary lines between the two all the time. For example, many large corporations have lobbyists who fight against unions and labor standards, charitable arms that donate to organizations that undermine unions and labor standards, and managers who discourage unionization (both legally and illegally) at their stores -- each of these activities is overlapping and affects the public interest, but only the first is typically classified as political. For this reason, the plaintiffs' arguments, if accepted, could potentially invalidate a whole lot of other rules that differentiate political from nonpolitical activity.

Fourth, the prevention of free rides (when someone benefits from collective bargaining without paying for it) is a compelling justification for requiring dues from union members. Unions in states that have restricted collective bargaining are already reeling; in Wisconsin, for example, where Governor Scott Walker initiated an anti-union crusade in 2011, compensation has fallen by 10 percent for members of the Wisconsin State Employees' Union, while NEA membership in the state has fallen by a third and AFT membership by half. Allowing free rides and making it more difficult for unions to negotiate reduces the bargaining power -- and hence the likelihood of securing adequate compensation and good working conditions -- for all members.

The organization behind Friedrichs, the Center for Individual Rights, has strong ties to individuals and groups, like the Koch Brothers and ALEC, that routinely fight against workers' rights. This lawsuit is part of those efforts; it isn't actually about free speech or constructing sensible policy. Instead, it's about undermining organized labor and further diminishing union strength and worker bargaining power.

For wealthy interests who benefit when workers lose and those congenitally opposed to teachers unions, Friedrichs may thus be welcome. But those who care about workers' rights and are interested in the facts would do well to oppose it.

Note: A deeper dive into Friedrichs and a related lawsuit can be found here.

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