This week, the United States Supreme Court issued it ruling in the case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, and public sector unions breathed a sigh of relief.
For those not familiar with the case, it dealt with whether public sector unions could charge “fair share fees” to individuals who chose not to join the union. In private sector employment in non -“right-to-work” states, employees can be required to become members of the union representing workers in the facility. In the public sector it is not possible to force union membership. Since the unions are still required to represent these non-members, negotiate wages, benefits, and terms and conditions of employment for them, and extend the protections of the negotiated agreement to them, the unions charge fair-share fees to cover the cost of representing non-members where it is permissible.
The ability to assess fair-share fees was upheld by the Supreme Court in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, 431 U.S. 209 (1977). The fee charged will be the union dues charged to members minus any money the union spends on political activity. For example, the Pennsylvania State Education Association charges 83% of all union dues as its fair-share fee. Fee payers also have the right to challenge the amount they are charged.
Unions feel that, since they are required to represent and defend non-members in the workplace, they should be entitled to assess these fees to cover their costs. Some employees who choose not to join the union disagree with these fees, and this creates the arguments upon which the Friedrichs case was based.
Although it was originally believed the Supreme Court would rule against the unions, the death of Justice Antonin Scalia lead to the 4-4 split decision. It upheld (at least for now) the right to collect these fees. Without them, unions argue, they would be less able to represent their members. Providing a free-ride to non-members would lower the operating resources available to the union. More employees may elect to take this route, further damaging the union and harming workers. As such, unions looked at this case as a threat to their existence.
On a larger scale, this fight is another example of labor and management operating in a traditional, adversarial relationship. The union and the school district spent time and financial resources on this case, limiting the funding available to educate students while driving a wedge between employees and the district. The many school districts (and other types of public employers) that have realized working cooperatively with the unions representing their employees enables both to help achieve the mission of the schools. Instead of operating as if they were natural enemies, employers and employees can act as partners to insure progress.