Aug 16, 2015

State of Our Union: California Teachers Take on Their Union

Friedrichs v. CTA to be heard by Supreme Court
By Candi Peterson, WTU Gen. Vice President

Statements or expressions of opinions herein 'do not' represent the views or official positions of DCPS, AFT, Washington Teachers' Union (WTU) or its members. Views are my own. 

California veteran teacher of twenty-eight years, Rebecca Friedrichs, a fourth grade Anaheim public school teacher leads the fight to sue her own teachers’ union in a federal lawsuit, Friedrichs vs. California Teachers’ Association.

Friedrichs has had longstanding problems with the way the California Teachers Association (CTA) collects union dues from rank and file members and how her union spends the dues money they collect. Friedrichs is fighting an “agency shop” agreement which forces teachers to pay fees for collective bargaining that the union performs not only for members but non members as well. 

Joined by nine other teachers and the Christian Educators Association in their lawsuit, these teachers argue that the California Teachers Association (CTA), the largest affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA), has no right to spend the rank-and-file's money on political campaigns with which members disagree.  Friedrichs was opposed to a portion of her union dues going towards efforts to defeat the school voucher campaign. Other measures such as Proposition 30 were supported by Friedrichs union, which she opposed.

In California, public school teachers can create an “agency shop” arrangement whereby all teachers in a district are represented by one union. Nonunion teacher members must pay fees for their union’s collective-bargaining work.

If this case prevails, this could eliminate public sector unions right to automatically collect fees from public employees.

This case is scheduled to be heard before the Supreme Court later on this year. 

To give a brief history, thirty-eight years ago- the Supreme Court ruled in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977) that states may allow unions to collect fees from non-members to pay for collective bargaining costs, but not for the unions’ political spending. 

Under state law, teachers and government workers covered by collective bargaining agreements are not required to join a union and pay dues. But they must pay a fee — a bit less than dues — to cover the union's cost of representing their interests, for example in negotiating higher wages.

About half of the states and Washington, DC, public sector workers are automatically enrolled in unions.  

Terry Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights, a non-profit interest group who is working with corporate law firm, Jones Day who represents Rebecca Friedrichs and the other aggrieved teachers says, “This case is about the right of individuals to decide for themselves whether to join and pay dues to an organization that purports to speak on their behalf. We are seeking the end of compulsory union dues across the nation on the basis of the free-speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment,” he said.

Not surprisingly so, public sector unions are gravely concerned about the ramifications such a challenge to the Abbod v. Detroit Board of Education could bring.

American Federation of Teachers (AFT) issued the following statement on the upcoming case,  “In Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a group of educators backed by a right-wing pressure group filed a lawsuit that has made its way to the highest court in America. It asks the court to decide whether public sector unions may continue to charge nonmembers a fee equal to the cost of representing them to their employer.

This fee is called "agency fee" or "fair share." In states where there is no fair share, the union must sign up everyone as a member—not merely a fair share payer—to keep the union strong. If the court rules against us, then our work to support working families and reclaim the promise of public services will become harder. “

Other national unions have expressed concerned if the court rules against the teachers union, public employees could pay neither fees nor dues, but still reap the benefit of union negotiated contracts as well as representation in workplace complaints. Some also believe it is part of  an ongoing effort to undermine and weaken the existence of unions in this country.
Washington Post reporter Emma Brown did an interview with the leading plaintiffs, Rebcecca Friedrichs and Harlan Elrich. Read it here.

I can’t help but believe that this case has little to do with first amendment rights. It seems like it has more to do with these teachers being used as pawns by right wingers who are more interested in dismantling public sector unions.

Friedrichs claimed that she was powerless to make change from within her union by serving on the union's Executive Board. She said, "every time I would bring these things up I would just get shrugged shoulders from our union executive board. They wouldn’t even give me a response." 

Certainly there were other ways this problem may have been addressed by directing her concerns with the union leadership, rank and file members and trying to get an amendment to the CTA's constitution. One such example would be having a separate political arm under the umbrella of California Teachers Association (CTA) that did not require compulsory fees from  full or agency share members. Membership dues should not be used for political purposes. This way members would be free to voluntarily donate to political causes of their own choosing.

What will it look look if the Friedrichs plaintiffs are successful? I shudder to think.

Moshe Marvit, attorney and fellow with The Century Foundation sums it up best, what  a victory in this case may look like, “the burden will then be on unions to shift more of their resources to constantly convincing their membership to choose to pay their dues. Public sector unions will be like public radio, having to spend more and more time on pledge drives, espousing a message of fairness and responsibility, in order to encourage workers to pay their fair share.”

You tell me would you rather have a union that regularly hosts membership drives or one who  gets you a contract and defends you in workplace disputes?

© Candi Peterson 2015

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