This article first appeared in Eagle Rising.
"Whadda'ya mean youse don't wanna pay union dues?"
The Supreme Court is hearing a case brought by Rebecca Friedrichs and nine other California teachers who have been forced to pay union dues even though they do not belong to the union. A decision on the case is expected in June, and it will have far reaching consequences for unions nation-wide.
Previously, the Supreme Court (Abood vs Detroit Board of Education-1977) had held that non-union employees could not be forced to pay dues to a union which were used for political purposes since the employee may not support those political efforts. They also held, however, that an employee could be forced to pay to the union to support their collective bargaining efforts. The union argument is that without paying dues to the union, a non-union employee would be, in effect, a "free rider", enjoying the salary and benefit gains that the union had won for all employees.
Full disclosure: I am not a union supporter. I have never belonged to a union and never will. Back in my college days, my dad, who worked in the motion picture industry, got me a summer job as a grip at Samuel Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood. Grips are the workers who set up the stages and backgrounds in a movie. It was the worst job I ever had. For the first 30 days, I didn't have to join the union. Then I got a letter from the union saying that I was now required to join, and that if I didn't join, they would have to notify my employer. I figured that was a good time to quit.
Years later, when I was a young US Customs agent, the AFL-CIO tried to unionize us. Most of us had no desire to join a union and it never happened.
My own opinions about unions have been largely shaped by the thug tactics they have all too often employed. I grant that long ago, unions were necessary to correct the exploitation of workers by their bosses. However, in my view, the pendulum swung way too far the other way . Then there is the issue of union corruption, links to organized crime, and all that sordid history. You can find and identify more Cleveland Browns teams that have won the Super Bowl than Teamsters presidents who didn't go to prison.
OK. That's a gross exaggeration, but you get the idea.
Back to Friedrichs: The plaintiffs argue that there is a free speech issue here in that they are being forced to support union advocacy with which they do not agree. For example, if a union fights against policies that would reward more talented teachers who have less seniority with promotions and raises over those with more seniority, why should one of those younger teachers have to pay to support that fight? The California Teachers Union (CTU) opposes merit pay for performance. They also insist that more senior teachers should be the last to be laid off. In addition, the CTU has opposed the idea of allowing families to switch their kids out of failing schools to better ones. California public schools are in bad shape especially the Los Angeles Unified School District (from which I graduated-no jokes please). The CTU is often accused of being one of the biggest obstacles to any meaningful reform.
It is my hope that the plaintiffs win their case. Union membership should be voluntary, and nobody should be forced to pay money to something they don't belong to or support. I recognize there is some merit to the "free rider" argument, but it seems to me that a dual track arrangement can be made in terms of raises and benefits though it would certainly be more complicated.
Workers already have enough of their wages taken out for taxes without having more money taken out to support a union they don't even belong to or whose efforts they don't support.