Public worker unions on the defense in oral arguments on landmark Friedrichs case

Jan 12, 2016

Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the landmark Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case impacting worker freedom.

The lawsuit was filed by California teachers who argue the compulsory union dues they are forced to pay are unconstitutional.  The case raises the important question of whether the current practice in forced-union states of requiring public employees to pay union dues or agency fees for the privilege of working violated the First Amendment rights of workers.

If the Court rules in favor of the plaintiffs, individual teachers would have the right to decide for themselves whether to join and support a union.  The implications of the Friedrichs case go far beyond teachers in California.  A ruling in favor of Friedrichs would essentially guarantee the right-to-work for all government employees in all 50 states.

WPC filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief in support Rebecca Friedrichs and her fellow teachers because every worker should have the right to decide whether they want to join or support a union.  Compelling workers to fund any organization, including a union, is fundamentally unfair and a violation of workers’ right to free speech—especially when that organization is as actively political as organized labor.   Workers are forced to pay the tab for politics with which they do not agree.

Based on the line of questioning from the Justices in yesterday’s hearing, it appears a majority of Justices on the Court may agree with WPC and others who support worker choice.  Virtually every media outlet covering the hearing agreed the attorneys representing the public worker unions were on defense as they were battered by questions from the five conservative Justices intent on ensuring teachers are not forced to fund political issues with which they disagree.

Justice Kennedy swiftly dismissed the claim that teachers who object to compulsory unionism are “free riders” declaring instead that under the current system they are “compelled riders for issues on which they strongly disagree.”

While the hearing was chock full of quote-worthy responses from the Justices, one of the highlights of the hearing was when Chief Justice Roberts maneuvered the lawyer representing California into agreeing that everything public sector unions bargain over is, by nature, political. 

The main argument from the liberal Justices on the Court appeared to be that the status quo should be upheld simply because it has been that way for so long.  Noting the Supreme Court ruled 40 years ago in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that public sector unions could compel public workers to financially support the union, Justice Breyer asked, “You start overruling things, what happens to the country thinking of us as a kind of stability in a world that is tough because it changes a lot?”

However, the Court has overruled itself in dozens of cases when it is clear a prior decision was a bad one--Brown v. The Board of Education, the landmark case that ended racial segregation in public schools, overturned the Court's previous ruling 58 years earlier in Plessy v. Ferguson.  Whether the Court will decide Friedrichs is one such case that merits reversal remains to be seen.

The Court is expected to issue a ruling on the Friedrichs case in June.