By Eric Heinz
In 2016, San Clemente resident Rebecca Friedrichs was waiting for her case to be decided in the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). She, along with 10 other teachers, were looking to overturn a requirement that employees of a public-sector union must pay dues to the respective union, regardless of joining the union or not.
It looked as if Friedrichs’ case was going to be approved, as the court waited on then-Justice Antonin Scalia to weigh in on the matter. But then the unexpected happened—Scalia died on Feb. 13, 2016 only a few weeks after the first SCOTUS hearing on Friedrichs’ case. A few weeks after that, the court voted 4-4 and the case was deemed gridlocked.
The case that set the laws for current unions came from Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977), in which it was ruled that public-sector unions could establish compulsory dues.
Following Scalia’s death, it didn’t take long for another prominent case to take center stage. Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31, has very similar provisions to Friedrichs’ case.
“The reason I brought my case was because in 28 years of teaching, even when I was a union leader, my friends and I couldn’t make our voices heard at a state and national level,” Friedrichs said. “We were silenced and ostracized. The problem is the teachers at the local level, in the districts, are usually wonderful people who love kids and work hard, but we’ve been forced to fund the state union and the national association and those unions are bullies.”
Through various union conventions and other meetings, Friedrichs said she and the other teachers demanded a change.
The California Teachers Association (CTA) sent out a press release immediately, claiming that the case was the design of corporate greed by way of political stifling. A major argument in the case against the compulsory dues is that it gave unions funding for political speech, whether the members who paid the dues agree with them or not.
“Today’s ruling is an attack on working people that attempts to further rig the economy and that reverses four decades of precedent,” said California Teachers Association President Eric C. Heins in a press release on June 27. “The decision is the result of a well-funded and nationally orchestrated effort to weaken the ability of working men and women to come together as unions and to speak with one, united voice. For educators, this an attempt to weaken our ability to stand up on behalf of our students and on behalf of quality public schools.”
According to the CTA release, unions will still be required by law to represent members and non-members, but they can opt out of paying for them.
Friedrichs’ case asked for right-to-work status, but she said that she was elated when the court ruled people will not have to opt out of unions once employed, something she said can be difficult.
“The unions gave us all that feeling that something was wrong with us if we didn’t agree with union politics,” Friedrichs said.
SCOTUS used Friedrichs case as unfinished precedent in its ruling.
“Take the example of education, which was the focus of briefing and argument in Friedrichs,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the opinion of the court. “The public importance of subsidized union speech is especially apparent in this field, since educators make up by far the largest category of state and local government employees, and education is typically the largest component of state and local government expenditures.”
Joy Schnapper, the president of California Unified Education Association, said the decision was not ideal for her union, but she said she doesn’t think this ruling will hinder the union’s abilities to serve its members.
Schnapper said a major attribute of being a union member is having backing during collective bargaining processes, the negotiations between school board officials and the union, as well as legal services brought against its members.