WASHINGTON — Forced unionization of government workers may be on the brink of ending in the United States if questions asked Monday by justices of the U.S. Supreme Court are any indication.
Rebecca Friedrichs, a California public school teacher, is challenging the constitutionality of being forced to give money to the union that represents teachers in her school district.
Friedrichs spoke to reporters minutes after her case was argued before the court.
“I’m here today with my fellow plaintiffs because our voices have been silenced for decades by forced unionism,” she said. “The unions forced me to fund collective bargaining efforts that were harmful to my students, and that’s offensive to me. When the union protects teachers who are abusive or who are no longer effective in the classroom at the expense of small children, I have a moral dilemma with that,”
Government workers can now be forced to subsidize unions by paying agency fees or “fair share dues” because of a Supreme Court decision made 39 years ago, Abood vs. Detroit Board of Education.
Justice Stephen Breyer, a liberal stalwart, said he see merits in Friedrichs’ argument but questioned whether it is appropriate for the court to overturn the Abood precedent.
He noted the nation depends on a stable set of legal precedents and that it would create chaos if the high court routinely overturns itself.
David Frederick, a lawyer for unions involved in the case, expressed fear that overturning Abood could create a class of “free riders” who benefit from union-negotiated wages and benefits but refuse to financially support the unions.
But Chief Justice John Roberts countered, “If employees have shown overwhelmingly they want collective bargaining, it seems to me the free rider problem is insignificant.”
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is often the swing vote on the court, said the issue is one of “compelled riders” not “free riders.”
“The union is basically making these teachers compelled riders on issues which they strongly disagree,” he said.
Kennedy, along with Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Roberts were critical of the Abood precedent. Justice Clarence Thomas did not speak during oral arguments, which is his custom. But he is considered a near certain vote for Friedrichs.
Roberts said that by its very nature, everything a government-employee union does is political.
In fact, Roberts asked for an an example of “non-political speech” that the union negotiates.
The example California Solicitor General Edward Dumont gave was mileage reimbursement rates.
But Roberts countered that even that example constitutes political speech because it deals with how tax dollars should be spent.
“Everything that is collectively bargained with the government is within the political sphere,” added Scalia.
But Justice Sonia Sotomayor said unions need to remain viable so government can negotiate with one entity.
But Friedrichs’ attorney, Michael Carvin, told reporters that unions remain viable in the 25 states that don’t allow mandatory fees.
And he predicted a ruling in favor of Friedrichs would not disable unions.
“It may limit their revenues somewhat, but they can compensate for that by being less involved in things like politics and tend to their knitting by representing their members in collective bargaining,” Carvin said.
The high court is expected to issues its ruling by the end of June.
Mark Janus, a state worker who lives in Springfield, traveled to Washington to hear the Friedrichs case argued.
“I got involved with this because it’s historic,” said Janus, who is one of three plaintiffs who filed a similar case in Illinois. That case is on hold until a ruling comes down in the Friedrichs’ case.
“I have a difference of opinion with the union and with what they have been doing over the years. Just look at the state of Illinois and its situation,” he said. “In some cases, the unions have backed certain candidates, which goes against what the taxpayers are looking for. “