Supreme Court Case May Bring Workplace Freedom to Government Employees

by James Sherk

An upcoming Supreme Court case could make union dues voluntary for all government employees. Unions are apoplectic at the prospect. But their preparations for defeat demonstrate how compulsory dues hurt workers.

Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association asks whether compulsory dues violate government employees’ First Amendment rights. The Court has long held unions cannot force workers to finance their political activities. However, the Court has permitted compulsory dues that only fund collective-bargaining expenses.

This distinction makes sense in the private sector. But everything government unions bargain over implicates public policy. Union negotiations determine how much the government will spend and how it will spend it. Government employees have diverse views on these issues.

Rebecca Friedrichs’s school district needed to cut costs in the recession. It could either lay off junior teachers or cut everyone’s pay. Although she has tenure, Mrs. Friedrichs supported the pay cuts. She wanted to keep good new teachers she worked with in the classroom. Her union disagreed and insisted — successfully — on layoffs. Rebecca Friedrichs had to pay her union to take that position.

On Monday her lawyers will argue that this was unconstitutionally compelled political speech. If Rebecca Friedrichs wins, union dues will become voluntary for all government employees nationwide.

Unions call this prospect an “attack on the middle class.” But their reaction to the case illustrates the problems with forced dues: They allow unions to take their members for granted. Unions do not periodically stand for reelection. In non-right-to-work states, they can force workers to purchase their services. This leaves little incentive to pay attention to their members’ concerns. Many government employees never even hear from their union. As the Washington Post reported:

The last time someone tried to call a lunchtime union meeting at the Upper Marlboro Parole and Probation office, things didn’t go well. Even with free food. “Nobody reported to the conference room, because they thought someone was there to sell them insurance,” remembers Monica Harris, who works there.… “A lot of people have lost faith in the union, because they haven’t seen anyone.”

With Friedrichs looming, government unions have begun outreach campaigns to their members. Why didn’t they do that before? Larry Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees admitted to the Post: “I think we took things for granted. We stopped communicating with people, because we didn’t feel like we needed to.”

Now unions need to. Their members may soon get a choice about paying dues. That potential freedom is already giving union members better representation. 

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