The Other Judicial Shoe Drops: High Court To Hear Case Banning Union Dues, Fees For All Public Workers

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

The Other Judicial Shoe Drops: High Court To Hear Case Banning Union Dues, Fees For All Public Workers

For the nation’s public workers, the other shoe dropped June 30 at the U.S. Supreme Court: The justices agreed to hear a case from California that could virtually outlaw the union shop, union dues or fair share fees for all public workers – turning state and local governments into right-to-work havens.

The case, Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association et al pits four dissident teachers – funded by the anti-worker anti-union National Right to Work Committee and its “legal defense” arm – against California’s teachers unions and the state.

At issue: Whether any state or local government worker, represented by unions in workplaces, must legally pay union dues or agency shop fees to help fund collective bargaining, grievances, negotiations or anything else, under any circumstances.

The justices set no date for oral argument of the case, just announcing they accepted it for argument and decision in their next term, which starts this October. But their decision in another workers’ case in June 2014, Harris vs. Quinn, foreshadowed this one.   

There, the court’s 5-person GOP-named majority ruled home health care workers and workers who aid the disabled in Illinois, who are paid by the state and represented by unions, were “quasi-public” workers and thus states could not legally order them to pay dues or fees. 

The right wing business-backed RTW group, whose unstated goal is to abolish unions by defunding them, funded the winners – eight dissident workers -- in the Harris case. The eight said the fees violated their rights of free speech under the Constitution’s 1st Amendment.

At that time, one majority justice, Samuel Alito, said he would question whether any public worker should pay dues or fees, as a decades-old Supreme Court ruling held. Overturning that ruling, Abood vs. Detroit Board of Education, would effectively convert all state and local governments into so-called right-to-work shops.

Since only four justices need to agree to consider a case, at least three of Alito’s colleagues also agreed to hear the Friedrichs suit. 

The court’s decision to hear Friedrichs upset both public worker union leaders and rank-and-file workers.  Lower federal courts had bounced the Friedrichs case.

The Supreme Court took “a case that threatens the fundamental promise of America — that if you work hard and play by the rules you should be able to provide for your family and live a decent life,” five union leaders said in a joint statement.

Kay Henry and California Teachers Association President Eric Heins added:

“The Supreme Court is revisiting decisions that made it possible for people to stick together for a voice at work and in their communities -- decisions that have stood for more than 35 years -- and that allowed people to work together for better public services and vibrant communities.

“When people come together in a union, they can help make sure our communities have jobs that support our families. It means teachers can stand up for their students. First responders can push for critical equipment to protect us. And social workers can advocate effectively for children’s safety.

“America can’t build a strong future if people can’t come together to improve their work and their families’ futures. Moms and dads across the country have been standing up in the thousands to call for higher wages and unions. We hope the court heeds their voices.”

The court’s ruling in the Harris case last year led the Fire Fighters, then, to forecast what the justices did on June 30.  “While the court declined to strike down Abood, the court discussed the ‘questionable foundations’” of it “and called the ruling ‘an anomaly,’” IAFF said then. “It appears the court may have established the groundwork for potentially overturning Abood in the future and for further encroachment on public sector collective bargaining rights.”

The Communications Workers, who represent thousands of public workers – notably in right-to-work Texas -- added working women would get hurt the most if the court rules for making public-sector workplaces all RTW.

“Under fair share, rather than free-ride, these workers who choose not to join may be required to pay their fair share of the costs of the representation from which they benefit. Friedrichs seeks to encourage free-riding by outlawing the fair share system for the public sector workforce, thereby making union representation more difficult to sustain.

“The public sector workforce is predominantly female and benefits from the ability to bargain collectively. The wealthy special interests behind this lawsuit want to make it harder for these workers to sustain union representation,” CWA said.

Rank-and-file unionists told AFSCME’s blog that Friedrichs upset them, too. St. Paul, Minn., teacher Kimberly Colbert, a member of Education Minnesota, the joint AFT-NEA affiliate, said: “When educators come together, we can speak with the district about class size, about adequate staffing, about the need for counselors, nurses, media specialists and librarians in schools. And we can advocate for better practices that serve our kids.

“With that collective voice, we can have conversations with the district that we probably wouldn’t be able to have otherwise ― and do it while engaging our communities, our parents and our students.” Robbing unions of money they need takes away that voice, she added.

Even before taking the Friedrichs case, the Supreme Court said on April 27 it would hear at least one other case important to workers – in this case, to whistleblowers. Green vs. Brennan pits Colorado postal supervisor Marvin Green against his agency, and other firms.

Green, an African-American, claims the Postal Service forced him to resign – what labor law calls “a constructive discharge” -- after unfounded allegations about misconduct in handl-ing mail. The real reason USPS fired him, Green says, was to retaliate for his complaint that he was passed over for promotion due to his race.  Federal law gives him 45 days to pursue such a complaint within USPS’ grievance procedures.  Green missed that deadline, USPS says.

Green wants the Supreme Court to rule when the 45 days starts to run: When an employer – in his case the USPS – takes “the last discriminatory act that led to the resignation” or when the worker actually quits, which came later. Lower courts have split on that issue.

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