friedrichs

The Myth of Public-Sector Unions’ “Free Rider” Problem

Last month, the Supreme Court’s agreed to review Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31 (Cato filed a brief in support of the plaintiffs). The case is a First Amendment challenge to the “agency fees” that must be paid to a public-sector union by non-members. As a matter of existing First Amendment law, no employee may be compelled to join a union or contribute money to fund a union’s direct political activities, such as political ads. In roughly 22 states (the 28 “right-to-work” states outlaw agency fees), unions may compel non-members to pay agency fees that (ostensibly) only reflect the cost of the union’s representational activities, such as bargaining over wages and working conditions. The agency fee is the product of the Supreme Court’s decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977), in which the Court prohibited public-sector unions from compelling non-members to support political speech, but allowed for the compelled support of the union’s other “non-political” activities. 
 
The plaintiff in Janus—like the 2015 Friedrichs case that stalemated after Justice Scalia’s death (in which Cato also filed a brief)—claims that, for public employees, the distinction in Abood between “political” and “non-political” is illusory because the terms and conditions of public employment are inherently a matter of public concern. A teachers union negotiates with a school system over salaries and benefits packages, merit pay versus seniority, the standards for teacher evaluation, and the controversial “tenure” provisions that in some states make it nearly impossible to fire even serial abusers. Each of these represents a core, political issue in education policy, and a teacher who believes that, say, merit-based pay systems would improve the quality of teaching in the school system (where perhaps her own children may attend) can currently be forced to fund negotiations against it.

Public-Sector Unions Survive to Fight Another Day

This morning, the Supreme Court disappointingly, but expectedly, split 4-4 in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. With Justice Antonin Scalia’s untimely death, one of the likely blockbusters of the term turned into a terse, one-sentence opinion: “The judgment is affirmed by an equally divided Court.”

“The judgment” was the Ninth Circuit’s decision, which sided with the unions on the question of whether forced union dues for public-sector workers violate the First Amendment. At stake in Friedrichs was whether public-sector unions would continue to be permitted, under a 1977 case called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, to take forced dues from non-members in order to fund the day-to-day activities of the union. In an alternate universe, one in which Scalia is still alive and sitting on the Court, Friedrichs would have almost assuredly overruled or severely limited Abood, essentially converting public-sector unions into “right to work” unions.  

The lack of a blockbuster decision in Friedrichs is one of the most significant immediate consequences of Scalia’s death. Few issues split the Court more starkly than unions, and there were clearly irreconcilable differences among the justices. Friedrichs was only argued on January 11, so the justices didn’t take too long to conclude that there was no way to decide the case with five justices in the majority, thus the thoroughly unsatisfying opinion today.

Friedrichs Decision Is a Blow Against Educational Excellence

Today, an evenly divided Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s decision in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association to permit unions to continue charging nonmembers “agency fees” to cover collective-bargaining activities that the union supposedly engages in on their behalf. About half the states require agency fees from public-sector workers who choose not to join a union.

Not only do agency fees violate the First Amendment rights of workers by forcing them to financially support inherently political activities with which they may disagree (as my colleague Ilya Shapiro and Jayme Weber explained), but the unions often negotiate contracts that work against the best interests of the workers whose money they’re taking. For example, union-supported “last-in, first-out” rules and seniority pay (as opposed to merit pay) work against talented, young teachers. Moreover, a teacher might prefer higher pay to tenure protections, or greater flexibility over rigid scheduling rules meant to “protect” them from supposedly capricious principals.

What if Compulsory Public-Sector Union Dues Violate the Guarantee Clause?

Today, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a challenge to public-sector unions’ ability to extract forced dues from non-members. As my colleague Ilya Shapiro writes, and Ian Millheiser at Think Progress agrees, the Court seems poised to strike down “fair share” fees for public-sector workers who do not want to join the union. This would essentially mean that “right to work” would be constitutionally mandated for public-sector workers.

Such a ruling would correct a 40-year-old mistake the Court made in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. There, the Court ruled that public-sector union dues can be meaningfully separated into the “political” and the “non-political,” and that, while the First Amendment forbids forcing people to support political causes with which they disagree, public-sector unions can extract a “fair share” fee for non-political purposes.

From the very beginning, this distinction was under attack. As Justice Lewis Powell wrote in concurrence in Abood:

Collective bargaining in the public sector is “political” in any meaningful sense of the word. This is most obvious when public-sector bargaining extends … to such matters of public policy as the educational philosophy that will inform the high school curriculum. But it is also true when public-sector bargaining focuses on such “bread and butter” issues as wages, hours, vacations, and pensions.

In other words, public-sector unions are just another political special interest that seeks favors from the government, and what they can’t get at the ballot box they’ll get at the bargaining table.

Hotel California: Teachers Union Edition

If a teacher opts out of her union, but the union refuses to hear it, did she really opt out?

Even where state lawmakers have passed “right-to-work” laws legally enabling teachers to opt out of paying union dues, the practical ability to opt out is far from guaranteed. In Michigan, for example–where dues can cost up to $640 a year–the teachers union surreptitiously created new bureaucratic hoops for teachers attempting to opt out.

In an apparent effort to make it even more difficult or even stop school employees from exercising their right under right-to-work to not pay union dues or fees, the state’s largest teachers union has quietly set up an obscure post office box address to which members must send the required opt-out paperwork. It’s P.O. Box 51 East Lansing, MI 48826.

Based on a letter the Michigan Education Association sent to members who had tried to get out, and discussions with some of them, resignation requests sent to the regular union headquarters address will not be honored.

An extensive search of the union’s websites found references to the post office box address on just one page of MEA’s main website, and on one affiliate union’s website. There is no record of this post office box address existing before this month. In the past, union members who wanted to opt out just had to send notification to the address of the MEA’s headquarters in East Lansing.

The MEA had previously restricted the union dues opt-out period to the month of August until a judge ruled that the restriction was illegal. As reported in Michigan Capitol Confidential, about 5,000 teachers left the MEA last year despite the obstacles.

Supreme Court to Consider Ending Forced Public-Sector Union Dues

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would hear Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which asks the court to consider whether compulsory public-sector union dues violate the First Amendment right to free speech–which includes the right to be free from compulsory speech. The Cato Institute filed an amicus brief supporting the petitioners’ request that SCOTUS hear the case.

In 26 states, public-sector unions can force non-members to pay dues anyway. As I noted last 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. 

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