February 26, 2015

Rescuing teachers from the grasp of forced unionism

By Deborah J. La Fetra Senior Attorney

California law forces all public school teachers to pay chargeable dues to the labor union that represents them, regardless of whether they are union members.  California law also forces all public school teachers to pay nonchargeable union dues unless they expressly opt-out of those payments.  A nonunion public school teacher has only six weeks to object to paying for these nonchargeable expenses after receiving notice of the union’s breakdown of chargeable and nonchargeable dues.  Absent a timely objection, the teacher must pay the entire amount.  Rebecca Friedrichs and other teachers are challenging these laws as unconstitutional under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.  But because their claims are currently foreclosed by the Supreme Court’s 1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, they conceded the points under existing law, and urged the Ninth Circuit to quickly rule against them, which the Ninth Circuit did.

The teachers challenge responds to the Supreme Court’s decision in two recent union dues cases — Knox v. Service Employees International Union and Harris v. Quinn — both of which noted that the decision in Abood was based on faulty premises and an unrealistic view of public-employee unionism, with the resulting infringement on individual rights.  Neither Knox nor Harris was set up to require the Court to overrule Abood, however, so the Supreme Court essentially issued an engraved invitation to workers to set up a proper case to do just that.  The Friedrichs plaintiffs accepted that invitation promptly, with a case cleanly presenting the very issues the Court forecast it would be willing to consider, and they have now filed their petition with the High Court.

In an amicus brief supporting the petition, filed today, PLF argues that this is an ideal time to review the public employee unions’ ability to garnish workers’ paychecks for the inherently political act of collective bargaining for taxpayer-funded wages and benefits.  The Los Angeles Times reported that California’s public teacher unions, wielding a “war chest as sizable as those of the major political parties,” have spent tens of millions of dollars on controversial political causes such as same-sex marriage, gun control, and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and can be expected to do so in the future.

Abood has stood as a blot on individual rights for almost 40 years.  This case clearly puts before the Supreme Court the question of whether it is time to rid our constitutional jurisprudence of this aberration, that permits states to violate individuals’ First Amendment rights for the benefit of public employee unions’ collective politicking.  The Court’s decisions in Knox and Harris so thoroughly undercut the foundations of Abood that the decision remains only as an anomalous relic.  While courts are generally reluctant to overturn established decisions, that principle does not require the Supreme Court to continue to adhere to a decision that has proven insufficient to protect constitutional rights.  PLF hopes that the Court will accept this case in the coming months.

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