On Tuesday, in the teachers’ union case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, in a 4-4 split decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of public sector unions to charge fees to non-members for the unions’ protection of all teachers in collective bargaining. The case intended to undermine the power of unions was brought by a libertarian organization, the Center for Individual Rights. Ten California teachers had agreed to sue to eliminate the membership fees they are required to pay to their local teachers’ unions even though they are not members. Tuesday’s split decision by the Court upholds a 1977 Supreme Court decision that divided union dues into two categories—establishing that non-members must pay their teachers’ unions for representing them in collective bargaining but that union members must also pay a second fee to support the unions’ political activities.
Lyle Denniston, writing for Scotus Blog, explains the significance of Court’s decision on Tuesday: “The most important labor union controversy to reach the Supreme Court in years sputtered to an end on Tuesday, with a four-to-four split, no explanation, and nothing settled definitely. The one-sentence result in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association will leave intact, but on an uncertain legal foundation, a system of ‘agency fees’ for non-union teachers in California—with the legal doubts for public workers’ unions across the nation probably lingering until a ninth Justice joins the Court at some point in the future… The Court had heard the Friedrichs case on January 11 and, from all appearances then, it seemed to be on its way toward a five-to-four decision to declare that it would be unconstitutional for unions representing government employees to charge fees to workers they represent but who are not among its members, even when the fees cover the costs of normal union bargaining over working conditions, and not lobbying or outright political advocacy. But the death of Justice Antonin Scalia last month left the Court to either find a way still to decide the case, or to end it with an even split.”
Denniston continues by explaining what is likely to happen following the Court’s split decision this week: “Shortly after Justice Scalia died, the Center for Individual Rights, a conservative legal advocacy group involved in the Friedrichs case, announced that it would ask the Justices to schedule a rehearing on the case if it were to split four to four. The Center said at the time that it expected such a request would put the case off until the Court’s new Term, which is slated to begin on October 3. Under the Court’s rules, a rehearing request in the Friedrichs case would have to be filed within twenty-five days following Tuesday’s ruling. It would require the votes of five Justices to order such a reconsideration, and one of the five must have been one who had joined in the decision. It is unclear how that rule would work when the judgment had been reached by an evenly divided Court.”
Why is the Friedrichs case so very important? A decision against public sector unions’ collection of what are called “fair share” fees would have financially weakened unions. Hannah Halbert of Policy Matters Ohio explains: “Fair share covers the administrative costs of bargaining and administering the contract.” Strong unions matter in our society where the power of the top One Percent grows increasingly dominant. Unions are among the few powerful voices that challenge the growing influence of money through the super PACs. As unions representing industrial workers have faded, powerful public sector unions have become a target of the far-right. The National Education Association with 3.2 million members is the nation’s largest union.
Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation commented on the broader significance of Friedrichs case in January during the oral arguments at the Supreme Court: “All unions—including, and perhaps especially public sector unions—also contribute to one of the most important foundational interests of the state: democracy. And they do this in many different ways. Unions are critical civic organizations that serve as a check on government power. They are important players in promoting a strong middle class, upon which democracy depends. They serve as schools of democracy for workers. And teacher unions, in particular, help ensure that our educational system is sufficiently funded to teach children to become thoughtful and enlightened citizens in our self-governing democracy.”
No place is the important role of a public sector union more visible this week than Chicago, where the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has scheduled a one-day “action” tomorrow, April 1, to protest a budget morass across the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago that threatens not only the city’s K-12 public schools but also higher education and the health and social service sectors. The school funding crisis in Illinois, complicated by the states’ failure to approve a budget for last year, is very real. The Education Law Center rates Illinois’ school funding distribution with a grade of “F” as being among the most inequitable across the states. The Chicago school district which has been under mayoral control since 1995, is also trapped by massive long-term debt resulting from risky borrowing strategies that culminated in huge losses during the 2008 Recession, losses that Mayor Emanuel delays dealing with. The Chicago Public Schools sold $725 million in bonds two months ago just to try to make it through the school year, but in early March, according to the Sun-Times, “Chicago Public School principals were being instructed… to stop spending money because the broke school district that has already imposed budget cuts, layoffs and unpaid furlough days is running out of cash to make a giant pension payment on June 30.” Governor Bruce Rauner’s failure to sign a budget for last fiscal year has also resulted in the threatened closure of Chicago State University.
Tomorrow’s protests will also target the governance of increasingly unpopular Rahm Emanuel. The Chicago Teachers Union’s day of action will demonstrate the needs of Chicago’s children in public schools, and it will also provide a voice for others who are being left behind in the state and city budget crises. Here, according to Chicago’s DNA Info, is how CTU spokesperson Stephanie Gadlin describes the purpose of tomorrow’s one-day city shutdown: “Mayor Emanuel is tone deaf and blind to what is happening to the people of this city. On April 1, we expect to be joined by a number of sectors facing budget cuts, layoffs, social-service cuts, university closure and people seeing a reduction of health-care benefits for low-income, immigrant and working-class people.”
DNA Info quotes the Service Employees International Union’s statement supporting the day-long action of the teachers: “SEIU Healthcare Illinois is proud to stand in solidarity with the Chicago Teachers Union and the April 1 day of action. Just like the teachers, the tens of thousands of nursing-home workers, home health-care workers and child-care workers whom we represent find themselves under attack at the bargaining table by Gov. Bruce Rauner and greedy nursing-home owners who refuse to honor their dignity.”