Rebecca Friedrichs, a third-grade teacher in the Savanna School District, which serves portions of northwest Orange County, is the lead plaintiff in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a lawsuit brought by several teachers that challenged the hegemonic power of their union to collect fees from non-union members. The challenge, made on First Amendment grounds, could have a significant impact on the way unions do business.
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in January, and a ruling was expected over the summer. But with the untimely passing of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the largest threat to union power in recent memory may have subsided, at least for now.
We sat down with Rebecca Friedrichs to talk about the case and its future.
(1) First, what was it like to have your case heard before the Supreme Court?
Having our case heard before the US Supreme Court was such an honor. Our voices have been silenced by forced unionism for decades, so it was a liberating feeling to listen as the Justices heard our pleas for freedom from coerced union speech. We were awed by the beauty of the historical artwork within the Court, the respectful nature of the Court proceedings, and by the remarkable support we received from many supporters who rallied on our behalf outside on the steps of the Court. That day will forever live in my memory as breathtaking blessing from God.
(2) How do you think the oral arguments went?
I feel very good about the oral arguments. It seemed that the Justices heard our side of the issues, and I’m hopeful and praying that they will rule in favor of our Constitutional First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association.
(3) Now, a little background, why did you become a teacher?
I wanted to be a teacher from the time I was in sixth grade. Then I had a seventh grade English teacher who really inspired me, and that solidified my desire to become a teacher so that I could inspire children to love learning too. I’ve never regretted the decision because working with little children has been very rewarding. There’s nothing like being part of the excitement when small children discover new and exciting information. Their enthusiasm is contagious, and it’s my desire to help them to become enthusiastic lifelong learners.
(4) Did you consider the fact that you would have to join the union?
I never even knew about the teachers’ unions until I was a student teacher, which was only six months before I was hired as an elementary school teacher. Sadly, my lesson about teachers’ unions was the result of an experience I had during student teaching. I was learning how to teach under a highly qualified and loving master teacher, but next door to us was a teacher who had lost her patience with children, and in my opinion, she was abusive to them. Every day I would witness her grab the children by the arms, yank them into line, and yell in their little faces. These children were in first grade; they were only six years old. I was so disturbed by the abuse that I asked my master teacher what could be done about the situation. At that time, she sat me down and educated me on teachers’ unions. She explained that tenure made it very difficult for administrators to rid districts of teachers who had become incompetent or even abusive, and she also informed me of the unions’ collective political efforts which were against almost everything I believed.
(5) How involved have you been in the union? What were some of the policies you disagreed with and how did the union respond to your concerns? Were you ostracized or retaliated against?
I was a full union member from around 1998 – 2012. During that time, I served as a union site representative, and I also served two years as the secretary on our local union executive board, so in all, I served three years as a union leader within my district. After stepping down as a leader, I remained engaged with the union leadership in an effort to help with extremely low morale in our school district.
I disagreed with many of the policies of our union including tenure, attacks on school choice, and the single-minded focus on raises at the expense of a more well rounded curriculum for the children.
During the downturn in our economy, I was a union board member. The district alerted us that they would have to lay off several newer teachers because of a lack of funds. The teachers who would lose their jobs were doing an outstanding job, and many of my colleagues were eager to support ideas to save those jobs. I surveyed a number of teachers on my campus, and they were willing to take a small pay cut in order to save the jobs of their friends, keep class sizes lower, and to stand in solidarity with the community we serve because many of the parents had lost their jobs or taken severe salary cuts. I brought this idea to our union leadership on several occasions. Every time I was met with resistance and told that the teachers would never go for it. When I suggested an anonymous survey so that teachers could share their voices with the leadership, I was again told no. After pursuing this idea for weeks, a union leader said, “Rebecca, don’t worry about those teachers. The union is going to take care of them. We’re going to offer them a seminar on how to receive unemployment benefits.” I was shocked. I told them that those teachers didn’t want to be on unemployment, they wanted to teach, and their students and the community deserved to have them in the classroom. Every one of those teachers was laid off that year. All of them left demoralized and feeling they were inferior teachers. In reality, they were stellar educators, but the union they were forced to give $1000 a year didn’t “represent” them at all.
(6) What made you decide to take action? What was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back?
I decided to take action because I discovered after years of trying to make a difference within the union and within my district that even union leaders are ignored and bullied if they dare to stand against the union status quo. No matter how many times I tried to reason with my local union on behalf of my colleagues, no one ever took action to support the needs of my colleagues and myself; even though we were paying the bills. No matter how many times I brought up our collective concerns about the political efforts of our union, the many negative issues surrounding tenure and other union policies that many of us feel harm our students, the voices of my colleagues and I were never heard. On top of that, every education reform I believe in is defeated by the union I’m forced to fund.
Someone had to speak up to alert the American people that their teachers are being mistreated by a private organization we are forced to fund, and that the very organization that claims to “represent” teachers and protect children is actually the money behind defeating common sense education reforms that would be good for our children and teachers.
(7) The case revolves around “agency fees.” What are agency fees? How are they different from dues and why shouldn’t teachers have to pay them?
There is only one way in which teachers can be union members, and that is to pay full collective bargaining fees and the overt political dues that fund union politics (like contributions to candidates and ballot measures). Full membership dues run around $1,000 a year in California, and I know teachers who pay as much as $1200. So, teacher payments are called “dues” when teachers pay for collective bargaining and overt union politics.
If teachers want to avoid paying for the overt politics of the union, which have nothing to do with their jobs, they can elect to become “fee payers,” but they lose their membership and all benefits of membership. So “fees” are all of the dues minus the overt political portion of the dues.
Fee payers pay 100% of the union dues, and at the end of the year, they can send a request to receive a rebate of the funds that were used for the union’s overt politics; the rebate is usually around 30% – 35% of the dues. If fee payers forget to send their rebate requests during the short window provided for rebates, they do not receive their rebates, but they are still considered “fee payers,” and non members. The union gets to decide for itself which expenditures are considered “chargeable” to fee payers or “nonchargeable” and overtly political.
Although fee payers, like myself, pay 100% of the collective bargaining fees, we are denied a vote on the collective bargaining agreements that we are forced to teach under, and we are denied the right to serve within union leadership. We lose all benefits of membership including our professional liability insurance and other perks like life insurance which are only available to us through the union. Because we lose our liability insurance, most fee payers replace that insurance through private organizations like Association of American Educators (AAE) or Christian Educators Association International (CEAI), so we spend our rebates on our liability insurance coverage.
(8) The union says without agency fees, it would create a class of “free riders,” who receive the benefits of union membership without paying for it and leave the union destitute. How do you respond?
First of all, it’s not a free ride if you never asked for the ride in the first place. No one asked me if I wanted to be represented by the union. Second, the unions lobby the legislature for the power to have the right to bargain on behalf of all public sector workers, even if a worker doesn’t want to be a member. So, they are out there actively working for laws that create the “free rider” problem.
The union consistently states that fee payers are “benefitting” from their collective bargaining efforts; however, many of us don’t think the collective bargaining agreements are benefits. In my value system, it’s immoral to place my narrow financial self-interest above the needs of my community, my students and my country. So when my union uses my forced fees to gain more and more for me at the expense of my students, my community and my country, I am offended and forced to take “benefits” that for which I never asked. I have so many ideas to improve our schools that I’d love to bring to the table, but my union (with my money) stifles my ideas and often promotes ideas and policies that are in direct opposition to what I (as a 28 year classroom teacher) feel would be beneficial to my students and to other students across this country.
The union takes my forced fees, yet they give me no voice and no vote in collective bargaining, and they strip me of liability insurance and membership. The truth is that I’m a forced rider and the unions have been free riding off of me and teachers like me for almost 40 years.
There are currently 25 states with Right to Work laws, and in those states, teachers have the right to choose whether or not to pay or join those unions. The unions are not destitute in those states; in fact, they’re doing quite well. The union’s argument that giving teachers choice would decimate the unions is simply a scare tactic.
(9) How have you been received by other teachers?
There are, of course, some union members who are angry with me; however, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the large number of teachers who have reached out to support me from across the country. Most teachers who support me do so quietly because they’re too afraid to speak out publicly, but some are gaining the courage to speak out publicly as well. Isn’t it tragic that so many teachers across the country have been bullied into silence by a union that claims to “represent” their best interests? It is my sincere hope that people across this country will become acutely aware of the abuse their beloved teachers have been enduring for decades at the hands of unions they’ve been forced to fund, and that those Americans will speak up in defense of teachers everywhere so that the teachers themselves will be able to find the courage to speak out as well.
(10) Why do you think more teachers don’t speak out as you have?
Three words: They are afraid.
(11) How do you think the passing of Justice Scalia will affect the outcome of the case?
We were very sad to hear about Justice Scalia’s passing. My heart is broken for his family. He was a brilliant man of integrity and faith. Our country was blessed by his service, and I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to see him in action the day our case was heard. Although I am personally hoping and praying for a positive decision this term, we don’t know what the outcome of the case will be. Court observers expect that if a decision is reached without Scalia, it will be a 4-4 tie. That would leave this very important issue unresolved. We think this issue needs to be put to rest once and for all—and we may need a Supreme Court with 9 members to reach a decision, so if necessary, we are going to push for a final decision to be made by the Supreme Court when there are 9 members. In other words, if we get a tied decision, we will ask for the case to be re-heard when a new Justice is confirmed.