Friedrichs vs. the CTA Ruling Could Restore Free Speech Rights of Government Workers
In less than one week the U.S. Supreme Court will begin to hear arguments in the case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, to determine whether unions can force public employees to fund speech through collective bargaining with which they might disagree. The case could result in a landmark decision impacting the First Amendment rights of millions of public sector workers nationwide. The California Policy Center joins hundreds of other organizations and millions of individual activists in urging the Supreme Court to rule in favor of the plaintiffs.
If the justices rule in favor of Friedrichs, the decision would not only take away government union’s ability to get public employees who do not pay them fired in the half of the states – most definitely including California – which do not have right-to-work, but would allow public workers to opt out of their union without needing to renew their objection every year. Here in California, the decision, which is expected in June 2016, would impact well over 1.0 million state and local public employees who are currently unionized.
The Friedrichs case rests on the argument that anything and everything that public employee unions negotiate is inherently political. We couldn’t agree more. To state an obvious example, negotiations between unions and elected officials over public employee pensions and pay are arguments over how elected officials should use public money – an inherently political question. Conceding to demands for higher salaries during an economic downturn – or at any time, for that matter – is a political choice. When public employees make more, either other services are cut, or taxes are increased. These are political decisions, not mere employer/employee issues.
While how public agencies spend taxpayers’ money is obviously a matter of public policy, the work rules negotiated by government unions also are inherently political. Union negotiated rules governing California’s system of public education provide examples of this in the form of “lifetime tenure” – awarded after less than two years in the classroom, dismissal procedures that make it nearly impossible to fire incompetent teachers, and “last in first out” layoff policies that reward seniority over merit. Conscientious teachers can be forgiven for believing these union rules, among others, are public policy decisions, inherently political, that have harmed California’s children. Yet they are forced to pay to support the unions who negotiated these rules.
The Friedrichs case, despite an avalanche of well-funded propaganda from unions, is not about whether or not unions even belong in the public sector. The point of the Friedrichs case, again, is that everything that public sector unions negotiate for is inherently political. And because they are inherently political, public employees should not be forced to fund these unions if they don’t want to, because that is a violation of their First Amendment free speech rights. You don’t have to restrict the scope of your argument to the explicitly political activities of government unions to make this case. Because everything government unions do, everything they fight for, affects government policy.
As a result, members of government unions should not be merely permitted to opt-out of the acknowledged “political” portion of their union dues, the amounts spent on political campaigns and lobbyists. They should be allowed to opt-0ut of paying all of it, including the so-called “agency fee.” And because these unions have made the “opt-out” process a difficult bureaucratic ordeal, where members can only opt-out during a certain limited time each year, and have to do that over and over again in order to have the non agency fee portion of their dues refunded to them, year after year, paying union dues should instead depend on an “opt-in” process. This would mean the government unions themselves would have to obtain affirmative consent, year after year, in order to continue to collect dues from government workers.
Government unions are not just inherently political in everything they do. Their agenda is inherently in conflict with the public interest. Unlike private unions, government unions elect their own bosses. Unlike private unions, government unions can demand pay and benefits without having nearly the same concerns about how that may impact the financial health of their organization. And unlike private unions, government unions run the government bureaucracy, which means they can more easily intimidate their opponents. For these reasons, perhaps the Friedrichs case doesn’t go far enough. But it’s a very good start.
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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.
The Unions’ Assault on Truth, November 3, 2015
California’s Official Antipathy to Educational Innovation and Accountability, August 11, 2015
Tough Education Reform, not More Borrowing and Spending, is What Students Need, August 4, 2015
The CTA Empire Strikes Back, July 28, 2015
Union Monopoly on California’s Public Education Remains Largely Unbroken, February 16, 2015