Union-dues case moves closer to Supreme Court

Sometimes you win by losing.

That’s precisely what occurred last week, when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted the motion by Rebecca Friedrichs’ attorneys to decide her case (Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association) on the basis of the pleadings, without a trial or additional oral arguments.

The “loss” actually means that plaintiffs – several California public school teachers – can immediately file a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court without having to wait the one to two years it usually takes to get a case through the 9th Circuit before appealing to the Supreme Court. The Center for Individual Rights – counsel for Friedrichs and the other teacher plaintiffs – worked to expedite the proceedings. Essentially, they elected to “lose” in the lower courts, reinforcing their contention that only the Supreme Court has authority to grant them their petitioned relief.

The ruling was the result of a tactical maneuver by plaintiffs to get their motion for a decision on the pleadings in front of a motions panel that is assigned monthly to consider procedural motions rather than allowing it to languish until a panel could be assigned to hear the substantive appeal. The motions panel ruled there is nothing of substance to decide in Friedrichs because it is governed by past Supreme Court precedent, which the 9th Circuit is powerless to overturn.

According to plaintiff’s counsel Terry Pell, “This is a big development. It means we are within spitting distance of the Supreme Court. It also means that Friedrichs is all but certain to be the case where the court either allows compulsory dues to continue or ends the practice. It leaves no middle ground.”

Plaintiffs anticipate the court will take the case in spring 2015, with a 2016 decision.

Friedrichs involves a state’s right to require public employees, including teachers, to pay union dues, called “agency shop” laws. Twenty-six states, including California, require such. Friedrichs argues this violates free-speech rights.

Friedrichs has national implications. “This case is about the right of teachers to decide for themselves whether they want to join a union. If we win, we will not just strike down the law in California but compulsory union-dues laws nationally,” Pell explained.

While California teachers are not required to join the union, they still must pay union dues, but they can get a refund of the approximately one-third of dues that CTA claims goes toward political action.

Plaintiffs argue the case concerns the First Amendment right of public employees to decide for themselves whether to join and financially support a union. Their case argues that collective bargaining activities are just as political as anything else the union does, and contend that the government cannot compel individuals to financially support the political positions taken by unions in collective bargaining negotiations.

CTA has argued that compulsory dues are needed to prevent employees from “free riding” – gaining the benefits of union membership, including collective bargaining on their behalf, without paying for them.

Last June, the Supreme Court stopped short of doing away with compulsory dues in a 5-4 ruling in Harris v. Quinn.

I recently opined on the outsized political influence CTA wields on California legislative policy and elections. With 325,000 members, and the collection of mandatory dues from members, it usually gets its way in the Capitol, and in most elections. If the Supreme Court rules that individual public employees are not bound to pay dues to their unions, CTA’s money chest – and its political hegemony – will be diminished, inextricably altering the balance of power in California.

This is the case that may decide it all: hence, all eyes are on it.

About the Author:  Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles resident, served in the California Legislature from 1998 to 2008, the last seven years as Senate majority leader. Romero is the founder of the California Center for Parent Empowerment, established by in order to empower public school parents–especially those with children trapped in chronically underperforming schools–to understand and use the Parent Empowerment Act of 2010. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register and is republished here with permission from the author.

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