How A Supreme Court Case Puts Equality in the Workplace At Stake

Isaiah J. Poole

There is one case pending before the Supreme Court that doesn’t get counted among the rulings that could have an effect on issues of equality and discrimination – but, as a friend-of-the-court brief filed recently by more than 70 civil rights organizations outlines, the case involving the California Teachers Association puts at stake issues of equality as well as those of worker rights.

An adverse ruling in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association “would undermine one of the most successful vehicles for providing economic and professional opportunities for American workers, and, in particular, for women, people of color, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (“LGBT”) workers,” according to the brief filed by a group led by the National Women’s Law Center, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and the Human Rights Campaign.

That vehicle is the power of workers to organize and bargain for such issues as equal pay for women doing the same work as men, actions to undo patterns of racial disparities, and equality for workers regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The question directly before the Supreme Court is whether labor unions – a public-sector union in this case – can be barred from collecting “fair share” dues from workers who have not joined the union but who nonetheless benefit from union representation and services. But that description of the central issue masks the bigger question: Shouldn’t workers have the right to organize in order to correct the now out-of-whack balance between employers and employees? And shouldn’t the court protect the ability of workers to exercise that right against corporate interests bent on making that right a hollow shell?

“A wealth of data shows that women, people of color, and LGBT workers represented by union contracts – which includes both members and non-members – face smaller income gaps, enjoy greater basic benefits like health insurance and parental leave, have safer workplaces, and are better protected against discrimination than their non-union counterparts,” the court brief said.

The ability of unions to fight for those benefits depends on everyone who benefits from the union in return paying a “fair share” for the benefits they receive. These fair-share fees – contrary to what you often hear from anti-union propaganda – don’t pay for “candidates I don’t support” or other activities not directly related to worker representation.

Fair share is a principle that the Supreme Court has upheld before, in a 1977 case involving the Detroit Board of Education. The only reason that precedent is being revisited now is an unholy alliance between the Center for Institutional Rights – a Koch brothers-funded organization that despite having “rights” in its name has been a leading right-wing opponent of affirmative action and similar civil rights priorities – and Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who last year all but encouraged a challenge to fair-share fees in another ruling against home-care workers.

The civil rights organizations’ brief warns that an adverse ruling “runs the risk of fatally weakening public sector unions” – exactly the outcome the conservatives bankrolling the Supreme Court challenge is seeking.

Also weighing in before the Supreme Court over the past few days are legal officials representing 21 states, dozens of cities, nearly 50 Republican lawmakers, school districts and public hospitals. Their main argument is that the fair-share model has been a success story for states and municipalities that has led to labor peace and better delivery of public services.

But this case has a special significance for people concerned about the continuing struggles women, people of color and LGBT people have to attain fairness in the workplace. In recent years labor has stepped up to the plate to be a leading voice against discrimination in the workplace, at a time when businesses and their conservative allies have worked assiduously to erode the ability of people, either individually or collectively, to challenge corporate power and the roots of economic injustice.

Dozens of organizations at the front lines of equality fights have stepped up to tell the Supreme Court to not bow to these anti-worker interests. In the coming weeks, we’ll have to buttress their efforts with grassroots actions that will reverberate within inside the walls of the Supreme Court.

One way that people can show their support is to sign this petition at the website

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