Over the past 26 years, Rebecca Friedrichs has been forced, as a condition of her employment, to pay tens of thousands of dollars to a private organization whose actions she largely does not support. As an elementary-school teacher in the Savanna School District of Buena Park, Calif., she has more than $1,000 automatically taken out of her salary every year and given to teachers’ unions. Faced with year after year of compulsory payments, Friedrichs is now on a path to end this union coercion.
As the lead plaintiff in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which has recently left the U.S. District Court for California’s Central District and will soon be on its way to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Friedrichs argues that forcing her to financially support union activism for political agendas she disagrees with violates her First Amendment rights.
Current federal law allows union workers to opt out of the political portion of union dues — for California teachers that usually amounts to between 30 and 40 percent of the total dues automatically taken from their salaries each year — but in closed-shop states such as California, workers cannot opt out of the rest of the dues, predominantly designated for collective bargaining. However, the plaintiffs argue that collective bargaining is inherently political, involving such debated issues as school vouchers and teacher tenure.
Despite the large sum paid to unions — up to $1,200 a year for some teachers — most teachers do not opt out of the political portion of their dues, either from fear or ignorance. Teachers who opt out of the political dues, even while paying the full amount of collective bargaining dues, are stripped of their union rights and ostracized by the union. First, they are neither allowed to vote in collective bargaining nor serve in union leadership. “I am voiceless,” Friedrichs says, “even though I pay 100 percent of the collective-bargaining dues.”
Next, the union takes away their liability insurance, included in union membership, and their ability to buy disability insurance, which is offered only to the membership. Friedrichs, who opposes paying the political dues on principle, was unable to buy liability insurance for ten years from 1988 to 1999 and ultimately returned to the union until 2012 because she felt vulnerable without the insurance. “One of the top reasons, next to fear, that teachers don’t opt out is because they are afraid of losing liability insurance,” Friedrichs says. “And that insurance costs the union about $3 a year per teacher, but they take it away from you when you opt out. It’s a way of control.”
However, the majority of teachers do not even know there is an option to opt out, or, if they do, the process is so obscure that they do not try. “If you ask a union representative to opt out, they have you check a box that exempts you from the $20-a-year PAC fee,” Friedrichs says. She told me that these representatives, who are teachers, are not malicious; rather, they truly believe the $20 is the only payment going to politics. “Many teachers then feel assured that they aren’t paying for political activity anymore,” she says, and they stop their pursuit of a rebate there.
To actually opt out as a teacher in California, you must first request, in a specifically worded letter, to be designated as an “agency fee payer.” This means you are no longer part of the union, despite paying collective bargaining dues, and have access to the rebate. As an agency fee payer — demonized by the unions as a freeloader — you must then send annual letters to the California Teachers Association between September 1 and November 15 requesting a rebate. If the letter is stamped outside of those dates, your rebate request will be denied. Only after all this will teachers receive a rebate for their political dues, which, up to the time the money is returned, essentially acts as an interest-free loan to the union.
Friedrichs told me that she has never seen directions for this process. “The unions purposefully make the opt-out process confusing and make sure the teachers don’t have this information,” she says.
I spoke with Terry Pell, a co-counselor for the plaintiffs and the president of the Center for Individual Rights, who told me that though the Friedrichs case opposes compulsory dues, it is not about fighting the unions, but rather about preserving the liberties of teachers and workers across the country. “What we’re proposing to do is to settle this as a matter of free-speech principle,” he tells me. “We’re not attacking the unions, we’re not attacking the right of collective bargaining, we’re just saying that teachers have the same free-speech rights as everyone else, and each individual should decide for themselves if they want to join the union and support their political efforts.”
On December 5, Judge Josephine L. Staton of California’s Central District Court ruled that she could not decide on the case because of existing U.S. Supreme Court precedent, which was exactly what Pell and the teachers he represents were hoping for. Now the case can move more quickly to the Ninth Circuit for appeal — Pell hopes within a year. The plaintiffs hope the Ninth Circuit will render the same decision as the U.S. District Court’s, thus speeding the case on to the Supreme Court, the only court with the power to change current precedent absolutely.
Pell believes that the Supreme Court, if it takes the case, will rule in the plaintiffs’ favor. He tells me seven justices of the high court recently expressed deep concern over compulsory dues in the 2012 case Knox v. SEIU. “You have a majority of justices signing off on an opinion that says this rationale is hanging by a thread,” he says. “The fact that the union is collecting millions of dollars in compulsory dues and using them for all kinds of political purpose within and out of collective bargaining is about as strong a case as we can make for why the court was right to be suspicious in Knox.”
Friedrichs says she looks forward to the coming legal battles, happy to finally be on the path out of coercion. “To be alone in this for 26 years and to now have the support of others is a great honor,” she says. “I feel like this weight has been lifted. There’s hope.” Perhaps this case will finally offer relief for all the teachers who feel the same as she does.
— Alec Torres is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.