Why You Should Pay Attention To The ‘Friedrichs’ Supreme Court Case

Dave Johnson

The Supreme Court has once again decided to reconsider “settled law.” This time it is a case involving the rights of public-employee unions to charge employees a fee for the services the unions are required by law to provide to all employees – even those who are not members of the union. The goal is to bankrupt the unions by denying them the funds necessary to perform the required services.

The argument is that since unions protect working people’s pay and rights, paying fees for union services therefore violates the “free speech” of those who support concentrated wealth and power.

This case is going to be argued before the Supreme Court on Monday. Here’s why you need to pay attention.

Payment For Services Unions Are Required By Law To Provide

When a public-employee union negotiates a contract, even employees who are not union-members get the pay increases, sick pay, vacation pay, union services and other benefits of the contract. Union services include the cost of collective bargaining, administering the resulting contract, and representing employees who have grievances under the contract.

Currently, unions are required by law to provide these services to every employee covered by a union contract, even if those employees are not union members. So, the unions charge an “agency fee” to those non-union employees to cover the costs.

Public-Employee Unions Support Communities, Not Just The Workers

Public-employee unions, by their nature, fight for the interests not just of employees but of the entire community. On a Wednesday call about the implications of the Freidrichs case, members of public-employee unions described how their unions help them serve the whole community.

Vincent Variale, a New York Fire Department EMS lieutenant and 9/11 first responder, said it is important for first responders to have a voice at the table, because they fight for preventive safety regulations, good equipment and adequate staffing levels.

For example, he said that on 9/11 they had no respirators, so it was hard to provide medical care as needed. His union local brought these concerns to the fire department and fought to get better equipment. Now they have respirators and protective equipment that allows them to work in harsh environments, like building collapses, providing medical care that is needed. And now that there is such a concern about “active shooters,” the union is proactively trying to get bulletproof vests. This demonstrates how unions protect the citizens their members serve.

Pankaj Sharma, a high school teacher in Illinois, talked about how his union works to stop cuts to the most marginalized and at-risk students. Special education, for example, is an expensive program and is often a target for cuts. The union fights this. The union also advocates for referendums to get high quality facilities. Because teaching has a high turnover rate, the union created a mentoring program to help keep teachers. This helps school districts and the students.

Coming Soon: Not Just Public Employees

In 2014 the Court ruled 5-4 that the First Amendment prohibited unions from collecting a fee from home health care providers who are not members of the union, even though the union was required to provide services.

Because of the makeup of the Court it is likely to rule in Freidrichs that nonmembers no longer have to pay those fees while the unions will still be required to provide those services. (Why else would the Court have taken this case?)

These cases are about public employees, but undoubtedly all of this is intended to lead also to attacking the same requirements for private-employee unions. This is about making every state a “right-to-work” state, and suppressing unions and wages.

Corporate Conservative Court Is Reconsidering Supposedly “Settled” Cases

In 1977’s Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that public-employee unions can charge this fee. So for decades this has been considered to be “settled law.”

But now the Supreme Court has a majority of members who made their way to the court with corporate-funded conservative backing. So the court is systematically reversing older “settled” cases that affect corporations, workers rights, and other elements of conservative ideology like voting rights and womens’ rights.

This time the conservatives on the Court are reconsidering the unanimously and four-decade-settled Abood decision. The case the Court is using to accomplish this is Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. The court is going to decide if non-union public employees will still be required to pay for the services unions required by law to provide them. All bets are that it will be another 5-4 decisions in favor of the corporate-conservative position.

The “Free Speech” Argument

The argument being used this time is that making people pay for services they receive, even when those services are required by law, violates their “freedom of speech.” This is said to be about “speech” because unions represent working people, enabling them to band together and collectively bargain, and thereby confront those with concentrated wealth and power on a more level playing field. Therefore, by their very nature, unions are engaging in “political activity,” and making people pay for the services unions provide is “unconstitutionally compelled political speech.”

In other words, because unions engage in the activity of fighting for better wages, rights, and protection, therefore the “rights” of those who would deny people those things are put at risk if unions are funded. Assisting unions in this mission by paying this fee thereby violates the free speech of those who support concentrated wealth and power.

We The People vs Concentrated Wealth And Power

The current majority of the Supreme Court was brought to its position with funding and backing of those on that other side – corporate-funded conservatives. These are the “people” whose “free speech rights” the Court says are being violated if unions receive funds enabling them to represent working people. These corporations are also the “people” who the Court ruled are allowed to put unlimited money into our elections because of “free speech.”

The Supreme Court repeatedly takes the position that anything that protects working people and regular citizens from concentrated wealth and power is by its very nature “political advocacy” and therefore violates the “free speech” of those few with concentrated wealth and power.

But the United States of America was founded by We the People – all of us “created equal” – with the purpose of banding together to protect ourselves and secure our liberty from concentrated wealth and power. This Supreme Court is consistently issuing 5-4 rulings that go against the very reasons our country was founded and our Constitution was written.

As the Supreme Court hears this case on Monday, that day will mark the beginning of a week of action to ensure that the public is aware of what’s at stake: the ability of workers to stand up for themselves and for the people they serve. Please visit America Works Together – a coalition of working people and their allies, working people like teachers, nurses, firefighters, and other public service workers who are passionate about our work, and learn more about what you can do during the week of action.

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