The US Supreme Court will begin hearing oral arguments on Monday in a case over the question of whether public sector employees should be required to pay union fees, even if they are non-members. The court's decision could undercut the power and long-term survival of public sector unions in more than two dozen states.
Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association pits 10 non-union California public school teachers and the Christian Educators Association International against the California Teachers Association, an influential union with 325,000 members. The teachers argue that they should not be required to pay fees to the union if they choose to not be a part of it, even though they are still represented by the union.
US conservatives have long sought to curb the influence of public sector unions representing employees like police, firefighters and teachers; those unions often support the Democratic Party and liberal causes. Today's case was spearheaded by a conservative group called the Center for Individual Rights.
A ruling in favor of the California teachers would apply in the 25 US states that do not already have what is known as "right-to-work" laws , which prohibit workers in a unionized industry from being forced to pay fees to that union. Such a ruling would be a blow to organized labor in those states, because unionized teachers and other civil servants in states without right-to-work laws comprise its main power base. Payments from non-union members that go toward collective bargaining — known as "agency fees" — are a substantial source of funding for unions in those states.
The basis of the teachers' argument is that California's current law violates non-union workers' First Amendment free-speech rights by requiring them to pay fees that support a political cause. Those teachers are asking the justices to overturn a 1977 Supreme Court ruling in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that allows public-sector unions to collect fees from all employees, regardless of whether those employees choose to be members of the union, as long as the money is not spent on political activities.
The plaintiffs argue that these annual fees "subsidizes those unions for the quintessentially political act of extracting policy commitments from local elected officials on some of the most contested issues in education and fiscal policy."
Unions point out that requiring non-union members to pay fees helps to combat the "free-rider" problem of giving workers the benefits of the union without having to pay for them. Unions also argue that collective bargaining, the process in which unions negotiate contracts with employers on behalf of employees, is not political activity and that state law requires the union to represent all workers, regardless of whether they are members.
A decision siding against the unions "would call into question thousands of public-sector contracts covering 9.5 million public employees and affecting scores of critical services, including police, fire, emergency response and, of course, education," David Frederick, a lawyer representing the California unions, told NBC News.
Among public sector workers in the US, 35.7 percent belong to unions, compared to 6.6 percent in the private sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Roughly three-quarters of the estimated 7.2 million public sector union members are in states without "right-to-work" laws.
A ruling in the case is due by the end of June.
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