When it comes to coercion, government employee unions are masters of the game. But now they must contend with masters of the courtroom. On June 30, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hearFriedrichs v. California Teachers Association (CTA), a case previously dismissed by district and appeals courts. Several school teachers across California, led by an Orange County teacher, Rebecca Friedrichs (in photo), assert that the CTA has no authority to levy political fees on non-members without prior consent. In light of its 2012 Knox decision and the political character of many “non-political” bargaining issues, the Court may overturn its 1977 Abood ruling authorizing the public-sector union shop. The CTA and allies counter, less than convincingly, that the plaintiffs are “free riders” mooching off dues-paying members.
Public-sector unions largely owe their growth to their authority to force non-joining workers to put money in their coffers. The Supreme Court believes this authority needs some restraint. By a 5-4 margin, the Court ruled on Monday, June 30, in Harris v. Quinn that nonunion private-sector home health workers cannot be required to support a public employee union even if their wages come from state Medicaid funds. The class-action suit originated in 2010 when several home care workers sued the State of Illinois and two unions, challenging two executive orders issued, respectively, in 2003 and 2009 classifying thousands of these service providers as state employees. The orders, wrote Justice Samuel Alito, violated worker freedom of speech. At the same time, the ruling did not overturn the 1977 decision that justified the public-sector union shop and applied it to non-members.
State governments are becoming effective union organizers. Several employees in Illinois, unhappy over the prospect of being forced to subsidize such an arrangement, are pushing back. And they've got themselves an audience at the highest level. On October 1, the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal by a group of home care providers objecting to an executive order issued in 2009 by Illinois Democratic Governor Pat Quinn that reclassified their status as "state employee," so as to bring them under union representation. The class-action case, known as Harris v. Quinn, will test the High Court's willingness to build on its Knox v. SEIU ruling of last year, which held that a California Service Employees union could not force covered nonunion employees to pay fees to support its political activism.
The U.S. Supreme Court once again has put the nation's public-sector unions on notice: Fee-paying nonmember workers under contract can't be forced to subsidize political causes they don't like. Last Thursday, June 21, in its long-awaited decision in Knox et al. v. SEIU, the Court affirmed a longstanding principle. Ruling 7-2 on the merits of the case and 5-4 on the issue of First Amendment rights, the Court concluded that the Sacramento-based Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1000, California's largest public employee union, had deprived "agency shop" workers of the right to opt out of making monetary contributions toward union advocacy.