The End of Forced Union Dues?

Defenders of the status quo in education have long used lawsuits to protect themselves from competition and force state legislatures to increase funding. Lately, rather than merely play legal defense, some education reformers have turned to the courts to push reform. In some cases, the long-term prospects of positive reform through litigation are slim, even when the court’s ruling is favorable.

However, one lawsuit currently making its way through the court system has the potential to remove a major obstacle to reform: compulsory union dues. In 19 states, would-be government school teachers are forced either to join the teachers union or to remain a non-member but pays dues anyway—sometimes more than $1,000 per year.

The unions contend that these compulsory dues are necessary to overcome the free rider problem (non-union members may benefit from the collectively-bargained wages and benefits without contributing to the union), but plaintiffs in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association point out that numerous organizations engage in activities (e.g. – lobbying) that benefit members and non-members alike without giving such organizations the right to coerce non-members to pay. That’s especially true when the individuals who supposedly benefit actually disagree with the position of the organization. Indeed, the plaintiffs argue that the compulsory dues violate their First Amendment rights because collective bargaining is inherently political:

Current federal law allows union workers to opt out of the political portion of union dues — for California teachers that usually amounts to between 30 and 40 percent of the total dues automatically taken from their salaries each year — but in closed-shop states such as California, workers cannot opt out of the rest of the dues, predominantly designated for collective bargaining. However, the plaintiffs argue that collective bargaining is inherently political, involving such debated issues as school vouchers and teacher tenure.

“Since my first years of teaching, I’ve been bothered by the fact that a large portion of my mandatory dues goes to pay for political endeavors of a union whose political positions have nothing to do with my job and have nothing to do with improving education for me, for my students, or for their parents,” Friedrichs tells me. “In fact, often these policies have negative effects.” 

The legal justification for compulsory union dues rests primarily on a 1977 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. But as Andy Smarick noted last week, the recent majority opinion in Harris v. Quinn displayed a willingness to revisit and perhaps overturn Abood:

The Abood Court’s analysis is questionable on several grounds. Some of these were noted or apparent at or before the time of the decision, but several have become more evident and troubling in the years since then. 

For example:

Abood failed to appreciate the difference between the core union speech involuntarily subsidized by dissenting public-sector employees and the core union speech involuntarily funded by their counterparts in the private sector. In the public sector, core issues such as wages, pensions, and benefits are important political issues, but that is generally not so in the private sector. 

Justice Alito also wrote that “preventing nonmembers from freeriding on the union’s efforts” is a rationale “generally insufficient to overcome First Amendment objections.”

The Friedrichs case, resting as it does on a First Amendment objection based on the premise the collective bargaining in the public sector is inherently political, appears to match perfectly the majority’s objections to Abood in Harris. It very well may spell the end of compulsory public sector union dues.