Strong Unions, Strong Democracy

From yesterday’s New York Times “Opinion” by By Richard Kahlenberg

IF the questions that came up during oral argument in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association on Monday are any guide, the ruling bloc of conservative justices appears ready to render a decision later this year that would significantly weaken public sector labor unions.

By stripping these unions of key financial resources — their fair share of fees provided by nonmembers — the court would upend a longstanding precedent. A decision in favor of the plaintiff would effectively slam the door on an era in which some conservatives joined liberals in recognizing that vibrant unions help make our democracy work. This is radicalism, not conservatism.

Public sector unions — representing teachers, firefighters and the like — are the remaining bright spot in America’s once-thriving trade union movement. In the case before the Supreme Court, Rebecca Friedrichs, a dissident teacher in Southern California, argues that she should be able to accept the higher wages and benefits the union negotiates, but not help pay for the costs.

Relying on the First Amendment, Ms. Friedrichs says that she shouldn’t be forced by the government to support political causes with which she disagrees. But almost four decades ago, the Supreme Court came to a sensible compromise on this issue, written by an Eisenhower appointee, Justice Potter Stewart:

No public sector worker can be compelled to join a union or to pay for its political efforts. However, the state may require that every worker pay fair share fees to support the costs of collective bargaining over bread-and-butter issues like wages, benefits and working conditions.

That 1977 ruling appears in real danger of being overturned. Doing so, David C. Frederick, a lawyer representing the union, told the court, “would substantially disrupt established First Amendment doctrine and labor management systems in nearly half the country.”

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