On a freezing Monday morning, dozens of teachers, parents and policymakers gathered on the steps of the United States Supreme Court to cheer on plaintiff Rebecca Friedrichs during oral argument in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. The case will determine whether teachers, and potentially other government employees, will be forced to continue funding union activities with which they politically disagree as a condition of employment.
Currently, in at least 23 states, unions can force teachers to pay “agency fees” or “fair share fees” that supposedly go towards non-political activities such as representation and collective bargaining. However, in the context of the education system, that frequently includes supporting union positions on what Friedrichs and her fellow plaintiffs are arguing are inherently political decisions, such as opposing teacher merit pay or spending more taxpayer dollars on pensions as opposed to smaller class sizes. When the other side of the bargaining table is a state’s taxpayers then decisions made during these discussions directly affect public policy. Public employees should not be forced to subsidize public policy decisions with which they fundamentally disagree as a condition of employment.
Teachers’ unions have been the single most powerful political force standing in the way of innovative reform in the education system in the form of policies such as charter schools, opportunity scholarships, or education savings accounts. While those policies focus on the rights of parents to choose the best educational experiences for their children, a 40-year-old case on the books has meant even teachers often do not have the freedom to choose whether or not they want to give a portion of their hard-earned paycheck to the union. As long as this injustice continues, at least a portion of the teachers’ unions’ political power to stand in the way of much-needed reforms is unfairly derived from the financial support of teachers who do not wish to fund their positions.
The misinformation spread via a lobbying campaign from several public sector unions is all but mythology — this case would not prohibit public employee unions or make it more difficult for those public employees wishing to join one. Any person wanting to join a labor union should not be prevented from doing so by the law. Freedom of association is a treasured right our Constitution recognizes and is certainly one that extends to those choosing to join a labor union. Forcing this affiliation however, violates that freedom of association and is a standard that should be reversed.
If the Court finds in favor of Rebecca Friedrichs and the other plaintiffs, public sector unions will no longer be allowed to collect the “agency fees” they are currently able to confiscate from non-members. Recognizing the inherently political nature of any public sector negotiations with the government (read taxpayers) is an essential step in restoring the basic protection from being forced to pay for political speech with which one disagrees.
Inez Feltscher is director of Education and Workforce Development policy at the American Legislative Exchange Council. Ben Wilterdink is director of Commerce, Insurance and Economic Development policy at the American Legislative Exchange Council.