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In These Times: SCOTUS’s ‘Friedrichs’ Case Won’t Mean the End of the American Labor Movement

In These Times: SCOTUS’s ‘Friedrichs’ Case Won’t Mean the End of the American Labor Movement

0 Comment(s) | Posted | by Ian Pajer-Rogers |

From In These Times:

by David Moberg

While most liberals were celebrating the Supreme Court’s June rulings affirming both marriage equality and Obamacare, many labor leaders were already worrying about next year. They feared that the court might hear a case that many of them saw as potentially delivering a crippling blow to the union movement: Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. And at the last minute, the court announced it would.

If a majority of the Supreme Court justices back the plaintiff in the Friedrichs case, promoted by a variety of right-wing, anti-union organizations, they will likely overturn the 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education court decision. The Supreme Court ruled in Abood that when a public employee union provided benefits, such as collective bargaining or grievance processing, to both members and non-members alike, the non-members could be charged a “fair share” or “agency shop” fee to cover an appropriate share of union expenses. Critics of the Friedrichs petition say that if justices agreed with its complaint, the Supreme Court’s action would have the effect of passing a national right-to-work law for all public employees (even though public employed collective bargaining rights are primarily matters of state law).

The two big teachers unions (American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association) and the two biggest unions of other public employees (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees [AFSCME] and the Service Employees International Union [SEIU]), responded with alarm to the court’s announcement:

“We are disappointed that at a time when big corporations and the wealthy few are rewriting the rules in their favor, knocking American families and our entire economy off-balance, the Supreme Court has chosen to take a case that threatens the fundamental promise of America—that if you work hard and play by the rules you should be able to provide for your family and live a decent life.

“The Supreme Court is revisiting decisions that have made it possible for people to stick together for a voice at work and in their communities—decisions that have stood for more than 35 years—and that have allowed people to work together for better public services and vibrant communities."

Whether celebrating from the Right or mourning from the Left, many observers saw the Supreme Court’s decision to take the case as another nail in the coffin of the labor movement.

There are good reasons to be concerned. A ruling in favor of Friedrichs would legally and morally permit some workers to be “free riders”—individuals who take advantage of what the union by law must provide them without paying for it. Perhaps more important, it would disregard the fundamental reasoning behind the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)-protected “union security clauses.” The law was intended to encourage collective bargaining, and if some workers could opt out of supporting collective bargaining, legislators reasoned, they would weaken the institution. 

From a practical point of view, unions would lose income that they could be using to improve conditions for all workers, including organizing the unorganized (although only voluntary political contributions, not dues money, can be used for union political advocacy). And a ruling in favor of the plaintiff would be a symbolic blow, a legal slap in the face, to a movement which has endured many such blows in the past.

But there are many other reasons to think that, win or lose on this case, the labor movement may not be as seriously damaged as many now fear.

First, there is a chance that even with this very conservative court (whose conservative bloc split enough times to give the liberal bloc some unexpected victories this past term), a majority might vote against the Friedrichs plaintiffs. The Supreme Court has narrowed interpretations of Abood in recent related cases, such as Harris v. Quinn. In that case, the court ruled that home care workers paid by the state are not state employees and thus are exempt from fair share requirements. Conservatives typically argue that agency fee payers are forced to financially support speech with which they disagree, thus violating the First Amendment. They have even argued that collective bargaining constitutes political speech for public employees.

But surprisingly, as the union lawyers noted in their response to the Friedrichs petition, normally arch-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia has offered strong arguments in defense of the agency fee, going beyond the usual “free-rider” critique of people getting benefits without paying their cost.

“What is distinctive, however, about the ‘free riders’ who are nonunion members of the union’s own bargaining unit is that in some respects they are free riders whom the law requires the union to carry—indeed, requires the union to go out of its way to benefit, even at the expense of its other interests,” Scalia wrote in the case of Lehnert v. Ferris Faculty Association. Scalia would have to perform some pretty spectacular legal acrobatic maneuvers to move from that position to rejection of a “fair share” fee.

Read the full article from In These Times.

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