Supreme Court Hears Case that Could Drastically Impact Unions

The Supreme Court of the United States heard arguments in a case on January 11, 2016, that could forever change the way labor unions do business.

The  case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers’ Association (CTA) is a potentially ominous development for public sector unions and unions in general. While many are decreeing this case as the death of labor unions, or at least as they have been known in the past, it’s too early in the ballgame to declare unions as “dead.”

What Governor Scott Walker did in Wisconsin by making the Badger State the 25th Right-to-Work state, the Supreme Court could do with one fell swoop depending on its decision in the Friedrichs case, a lawsuit with major implications for all public employee unions.

The lawsuit challenges the authority of the CTA and other public employee unions to collect union dues. For unions, the consequences of losing the right to collect agency fees are the potential for significantly reduced income, which means a reduced ability to represent members.

Many individuals might stop paying dues on the basis that benefits are now “free.” Half of the states have adopted laws establishing mandatory “fair share” or “agency” fees employees pay to unions. The remaining 25 Right-to-Work states either prohibit collective bargaining by public workers or ban mandatory dues. Although the case directly involves the CTA, a decision could affect all unions representing public workers.

What this case boils down to is that unions could have to represent all members whether or not they pay dues. This means there could be two members with the same titles working side by side, doing the same job within the same guidelines, yet only one is paying dues. The problem with this is that the diminished resources of the union would have to be utilized to attend to the needs of the same number of members. Unions would still have to negotiate contracts and benefits for non-dues-paying members, would still have to arbitrate their grievances, would still have to manage their benefits — but these non-dues-paying members would be freeloading.

The outcome of this case is so important because a decision in favor of the challengers would allow millions of government workers in more than 20 states to opt out of paying for collective bargaining, depriving unions of vast sums of money and making them less effective. The Supreme Court has ruled on this issue before in 1977 in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, when it said requiring nonmembers to pay for collective bargaining was constitutional. The California plaintiffs in the current case are asking the Supreme Court to overrule the Abood decision.