Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Forced Union Fees Case


Although the US Supreme Court ruled in 1977 that state governments could force teachers in public schools to pay mandatory union fees whether they were members of the union or not, that ruling is being reevaluated. This, the Supreme Court heard arguments that proposed that the “agency shop arrangement,” or “fair share fee” justified in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education should be overruled.

The idea was first approved by the court on the grounds that the government had a legal interest in keeping union non-members from getting a free ride on the coattails of the union’s collective-bargaining attempts, according to Damon Root of Reason magazine.

Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association is centered on California teacher Rebecca Friedrichs, who will not join the teachers union and believes her First Amendment rights will be taken away if she is forced to provide financial support to a union that has an agenda with which she unquestionably disagrees.

“Just as the government cannot compel political speech or association generally,” Friedrichs and her lawyers told the Supreme Court, “it cannot mandate political speech or association as a condition of employment.”

In the 1977 Abood ruling, the court decided that compelling employees to support monetarily their collective-bargaining representative did not meet the definition of legitimate First Amendment violation as it applied to collective bargaining in the public sector.

But in 2012′s Knox v. Service Employees International Union, Local 1000, the Court declared the SEIU’s one-time special fee with no advance notice to non-members was invalid. Justice Samuel Alito said:

“… procedures for collecting fees from nonmembers must be carefully tailored to minimize impingement on First Amendment rights, and the procedure used in this case cannot possibly be considered to have met that standard.”

If the judges find for the plaintiff, the ruling could affect millions of government employees and could complete a legal and political battle by well-known conservative foundations that have taken aim at weakening public-sector unions, said Adam Liptak of The New York Times.

The unions, on the other hand, may lose fees from those who disagree with the unions’ positions and from workers who choose not to join, but who will still profit from the unions’ efforts.

Under California law, government employees who choose not to be union members are required to pay an “agency fee” usually equal to membership fees. These monies are used to support collective bargaining activities and “the cost of lobbying activities.”

The four liberal justices asked whether changing the 1977 decision was reasonable. But unions say non-members are already entitled to refunds of payments spent on political campaigns. They add that the plaintiffs, in their opinions, are attempting to reap the benefits of the bargaining without paying their share of the costs.

The Friedrichs case contends that union fees used to finance collective bargaining also violate the First Amendment because how the government chooses to allocate these resources is also a political issue, reports Cole Stangler of the International Business Times.

The Supreme Court will also have to examine the constitutionality of whether unions can continue to require workers individually to opt out of paying fair-share fees as opposed to affirmatively opting in.

The results of collective bargaining benefit union members in many ways, such as higher pay, job security, and better working conditions. Seattle University School of Law Professor Charlotte Garden added that other union assistance that could be affected by the upcoming decision are training programs, peer mentoring, and benefits counseling. In past years, it has been the unions that have backed political initiatives such as minimum wage increases, paid-leave policies, safety regulations, and extensions of overtime eligibility.

But critics counter that an end to required dues would allow for much-needed additional money for struggling governments. Though many observers expect the court to side with Friedrichs, some justices have expressed sympathy with the unions.

It is anticipated that a decision will be made by this summer.