Organized labor had what appeared to be a bad day in court Jan. 11 when the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that asked whether government employees can be required to pay union dues if they object to the union’s political activities.
The plaintiffs in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association argued that having to pay “agency fees”—the equivalent of union dues—even though they do not belong to the union violates their First Amendment rights. California law requires most teachers to contribute to their local union whether or not they want to join the union or agree with its political activities.
Unions commonly donate money to political candidates and causes that may not enjoy the universal support of union members.
Most of the Supreme Court Justices seemed to agree with attorneys representing lead plaintiff, and third-grade teacher, Rebecca Friedrichs that 40 years’ worth of settled law on the issue might be due for reversal.
In 1977, the Supreme Court affirmed the legality of agency fees in its Abood v. Detroit Board of Education decision. Friedrichs’ attorney pointed out that agency fees are illegal in 25 states.
A decision in favor of Friedrichs would be widely viewed as a crippling blow to a labor movement whose only real power now lies in its representation of public employees. Government workers are five times more likely than private-sector workers to belong to a union.
The court is expected to rule in the case by June.