Supreme Court Case Could Have Significant Effect on Public-Sector Unions

Public Sector.BlogRebecca Friedrichs, a California school teacher, resented paying fees to the union for representation she didn’t want. She and some other teachers sued, arguing that unions who collect fees from non-member public employees violate the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and free association. The case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on January 11. Friedrichs wants the Court to overturn Abood v. Detroit Bd. Of Education, 431 U.S. 209 (1977), which allows such fees if they go solely toward the costs of collective bargaining and are not used for political purposes.

When the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals looked at this issue, it upheld laws requiring non-member teachers to contribute to a union’s bargaining costs. This is because the non-members weren’t forced to support union political activities, but did benefit from the union’s efforts to secure better working conditions for all teachers.

The federal National Labor Relations Act, which applies only to private employers, allow unions to collect fees from non-members, except in right-to-work states. If public employees have a right to organize, that right falls under state law, which is why this case involves a challenge to California law. State law does provide an opt-out of the fees requirement, but Ms. Friedrich and other plaintiffs argue that it should work the other way: they should have to opt-in; i.e., they would only be charged fees if they agreed to it.

Some are concerned about the unintended consequences of changing such a well-established practice. Ms. Friedrich and her attorneys point out that she and others are only asking for prospective relief, and that the ruling would not apply retroactively. When this case is decided by the Court, we will let you know the outcome. How this would impact state law in Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and other western states, including California, will depend upon each state’s laws, and we will also provide that analysis.