Bill Knight column for Mon, Tues., or Wed., Dec. 28, 29 or 30
When the U.S. Supreme Court last month approved a request from government attorneys to extend time for oral arguments in “Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association” – a case involving the right of public unions to require workers in bargaining units to share in the costs of representation – it signaled the seriousness of the issue, and also the vital stakes for all working Americans.
The court added an extra 10 minutes to the time lawyers for the state of California and the federal government have to argue their case during the Jan. 11 appearance. The defendant is the teachers union, but the state and federal government are adding their voices on behalf of the U.S. Constitution and, really, private enterprise – here, unions – for the protection of free-market transactions requiring payment for services.
Plaintiffs’ counsel also was given an additional 10 minutes.
The court will consider overturning a Supreme Court ruling from 38 years ago that states may require public workers to join a union or pay a fee to cover costs that unions incur when workers organize and affiliate as unions, negotiate at the bargaining table, enforce contracts through grievance and arbitration, and sometimes use their most formidable tool, the work stoppage.
If the plaintiffs prevail – they’re a handful of teachers who claim they oppose union efforts to increase pay and protect job security because it violates their free-speech rights – it could destroy public-employee unions in dozens of states where laws provide for “agency fees,” or “fair-share fees.” Those laws mandate that workers covered by union contracts need not be members and pay dues, but they must contribute to the portion of union revenues that cover non-political expenses like negotiations.
Once a union is the recognized bargaining agent, not so incidentally, they are required by federal law to fairly represent all workers in that bargaining unit.
Besides decimating unions’ ability to fund activities helping workers, a win for the plaintiffs is seen by some observers as a back-door way to impose a Right-To-Work environment where legislatures haven’t passed such a measure.
The case was essentially encouraged by U. S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who last year wrote the majority opinion in “Harris v. Quinn,” a case where the court ruled against the union representing Illinois home-care workers: SEIU Healthcare Illinois & Indiana. Alito vigorously questioned whether fair share or agency fees were constitutional.
Right-To-Work zealots haven’t addressed other impositions on citizens compelled to pay corporations or government despite disagreements. How would Alito, Scalia and cohorts feel about an Illinois taxpayer demanding road improvements while refusing to pay taxes because Speaker Madigan and/or Gov. Rauner are jerks? How would Alito, Thomas and gang treat a consumer who expected phone service from AT&T despite refusing to pay them because a former subsidiary distributed a porn channel (The Hot Network)?
If Alito, Roberts and their ilk legitimize people getting something for nothing, what about human needs (water, shelter, food), much less human wants (clothes, transportation, entertainment)?
Organized labor, the state of California and the Obama administration all remind the Justices that collective bargaining produces direct benefits to workers, and that without agency fees, people who don’t contribute can unfairly exploit unions’ work on their behalf while passing costs on to co-workers who do.
Besides the teachers’ lawyer defending the precedent decision – 1977’s “Abood v. Detroit Board of Education” – are California Attorney General Kamala Harris and Solicitor General Edward DuMont., defending their state’s 1975 law authorizing agency fees, and U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, arguing the Justice Department’s position that the practice is constitutional.
Of course, politics is at the heart of the dispute. According to the Center for Individual Rights – the right-wing group representing the plaintiffs that’s previously attacked Civil Rights and Voting Rights laws – the teachers objecting to helping pay for representation are Republicans or independents who feel their fees are used for political purposes with which they disagree. Again, public employee unions (which do generally support Democrats) are prohibited from spending agency fees on campaign contributions or ballot issues, and must keep strict accounting of the separate operations. Nevertheless, the plaintiffs say that ANY communication with an employer made up of elected officials, like a school board, is a political activity – even bargaining over wages, hours and working conditions.
Will a few more minutes help the Supreme Court appreciate the common interests and obligations even among people who don’t agree all the time on every issue? Will they concede that unions are established by a majority vote and can be likewise decertified, and are led by officers elected by the rank and file? Or will the Court’s dark STAR (Scalia, Thomas, Alito and Roberts) single out and destroy workers’ unions?