January 12, 2016

January 12, 2016 | Commentary on Labor

To Form a More (Responsive) Union

To understand why Rebecca Friedrichs, a school teacher in California's Orange County, will soon have her case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, you have to understand something about her union: It would not even survey its members.

Friedrich's school district started losing money in the recession. It had to either lay off teachers or trim everyone's pay. Friedrichs has tenure; her job was secure. Still, she preferred the pay cut. It would protect outstanding new teachers she taught with.

Her union's executive board dismissed the idea; they favored layoffs. So Friedrichs suggested surveying the teachers' preferences. The union refused. A union executive chided her, "Rebecca, don't worry about those teachers losing their jobs. The union is going to offer a seminar on how they can obtain unemployment benefits."

The union got its way. It avoided pay cuts, and several junior teachers got pink slips.

This indifference finally caused Friedrichs to quit her union. But she still has to pay it to represent her.

She has no choice. Like many states, California requires government employees to pay union dues. Teachers don't have to formally belong to their union. But they do have to pay "agency fees" that fund union operations. The California Teachers Association takes $650 a year from non-members like Friedrichs. Teachers who oppose their union's bargaining positions still finance them.

That looks a lot like forced speech. Indeed, the Supreme Court has ruled unions cannot spend compulsory dues on political activities. That clearly violates First Amendment free-speech rights. But the Court has permitted compulsory dues that fund non-political workplace representation.

However, this distinction breaks down in government. Everything government unions bargain over involves political questions. Consider:

-- Should a city respond to shortfalls by raising taxes, cutting pay or letting employees go?

-- Should teachers get paid based on classroom effectiveness or seniority?

-- How difficult should firing government employees be?

Americans come down on all sides of these questions. Answering them involves deep-seated beliefs about the proper role and size of government. Many government employees, such as Friedrichs, disagree with their unions' answers -- even if they personally benefit from them. Nonetheless, they must pay unions to negotiate contract provisions they abhor.

Friedrichs has chafed against this since she first started teaching. As a student teacher, she saw another teacher verbally abuse first-graders. When she protested, her master teacher explained that the teacher had tenure. The union contract prevented the district from firing her. Friedrichs was appalled, but she couldn't do anything about it.

Now Friedrichs will get her day in court. In 2013 she filed suit against compulsory union dues in government. She wants to stop financing union contracts she can't stand. Friedrichs believes that violates free speech just as much as compulsory political donations. On Jan. 11, the Supreme Court will hear her case in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association.

Friedrichs has reason for optimism. The court has recently expressed skepticism about compulsory dues in government. Many justices believe that government union contracts involve political questions -- on which the constitution protects free speech. If Friedrichs wins, union dues will become voluntary in government nationwide.

Government unions have reacted to this prospect with outrage. But their preparations for defeat reinforce the case for voluntary dues. The major government unions have all begun outreach campaigns to their members. They want to learn their views and address their problems. These unions hope to show their representation is worth voluntarily paying for.

Why didn't they do this before? "We took things for granted," Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, admits. "We stopped communicating with people, because we didn't feel like we needed to."

Now that they need to, government unions have become more responsive. If they continue, their members may pay dues voluntarily. That would be good news for both government employees and their unions. Surveying union members is not that difficult.

James Sherk is a research fellow specializing in labor economics in the Center for Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Avenue NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; Web site: www.heritage.org. Information about Heritage's funding may be found at http://www.heritage.org/about/reports.cfm.

Originally distributed by the Tribune Content Agency.

About the Author

James Sherk Research Fellow, Labor Economics
Center for Data Analysis