Peter Schrag

Peter Schrag

Given the drift of the justices’ questions during oral arguments in the Supreme Court last week (Jan. 11), it’s highly likely the Court will overturn its own 40-year-old precedent and outlaw the fees that all public employees – even non-union members – must pay to the public-sector unions that are legally required to represent them.

That would be a three-fer for the conservative groups that brought the case: Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. It will hit not only the unions, which may lose a significant part of their revenue, but the Democrats, who rely in significant part on public-sector union support for their campaign funding, and the public schools.

Like the controversial 2010 decision in Citizens United, another decision that overturned long-standing precedents, this case, as Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank put it, “is about campaign finance,” a gift to the Republicans this November. But it’s also about a lot more – public schools themselves – little of which was mentioned in the Court last week.

The nominal plaintiffs are Rebecca Friedrichs, an elementary school teacher in Anaheim, and nine other California public school teachers who contend that as non-members, the “agency fees” – sometimes called “fair share” dues – they’re required to pay to the CTA violate their free speech rights.

They say they don’t support many of the positions the CTA takes. They can already choose not to pay the part that supports those union activities that are officially political, like campaigns for candidates and initiatives. But they contend that almost everything the union does – negotiating for higher wages, for example, which impinges on that quintessentially political matter, the budget – is political.

Justice Antonin Scalia and the Court’s other conservatives echoed that reasoning during this week’s arguments. “Almost everything that is collectively bargained with the government,” Scalia said, “is within the political sphere, almost by definition.”

But the big, though unnamed, party in this fight is the Washington-based Center for Individual Rights, which is supported by a host of major conservative groups and individuals, among them the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, the Christian Educators Association and the Koch brothers. Among the major targets of its litigation have been affirmative action, the voting rights act and public-sector unions.

Friedrichs is not just a story of conservative activism. The left and the unions have themselves helped create the atmosphere in which this suit is being litigated: Davis Guggenheim’s smack at the New York teachers union in his film “Waiting for Superman;” the New York “rubber room” for teachers who were so bad no one wanted them but were hard to fire; the rigid tenure and seniority contracts in California and elsewhere, now being challenged in California courts. Maybe the list should even include President Obama’s former longtime Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who was a strong backer of pinning teacher evaluations to student outcomes. Guggenheim was widely recognized as a liberal through his association with Al Gore. Obama on evaluations of teachers was widely opposed by unions; Arne Duncan cheered the Vergara decision. All that has been part of the anti-union miasma.

And, beyond the schoolhouse, lets not forget the lavish sick leave, retirement deals and other benefits that the cops, firefighters and prison guards unions have gotten for their members and that the state and local governments will be struggling for many years to fund. Nor we should forget the power of the prison guards over the past decades in getting costly “tough on crime” prison sentencing laws legislated into the statute books. Even with the reforms of the past couple of years, many of them forced by the federal courts, we’ll also be paying for those laws for years.

None of those things were mentioned in this week’s oral argument, but they’re there. A lot of people on the left wouldn’t be brokenhearted if the cops and prison guards lost some of that clout.

But for those who care about the public schools, the two big teachers unions have been far and away the most consistent and effective advocates for adequate school funding. They foster collaboration and a common purpose within the schools. Historically, the schools and the unions have also been far and away the strongest and most hopeful institutions in converting the pluribus of an immigrant nation into the unum of good citizenship, in giving those citizens a chance at economic opportunity and in nurturing a healthy democracy.

Here in California, more recently, the public-employee unions – not just the CTA, but the California Federation of Teachers, the Service Employees International Union and several others – were by far the biggest supporters of Proposition 30 in 2012, which is currently generating an estimated $8-plus billion a year for the state’s underfunded schools and community colleges.

If the court strikes down agency fees, that will seriously weaken the unions, and the privatizers and the voucher groups will be thrilled. Those issues, too, though never mentioned, loomed large during the oral arguments.

•••

Peter Schrag, former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee, has written about education and other issues in California for more than 40 years.  He is also the author, most recently, of “When Europe Was a Prison Camp: Father and Son Memoirs, 1940-41.”

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  1. Dawn Urbanek 4 years ago4 years ago

    "But for those who care about the public schools, the two big teachers unions have been far and away the most consistent and effective advocates for adequate school funding." This is not true. The Unions were the greatest supporters of Prop 30 in 2012 -- not to get additional funding for students but to backfill their unfunded pensions and to get compensation increases. Students in my district still had furlough days, increased class sizes, cuts to … Read More

    “But for those who care about the public schools, the two big teachers unions have been far and away the most consistent and effective advocates for adequate school funding.”

    This is not true. The Unions were the greatest supporters of Prop 30 in 2012 — not to get additional funding for students but to backfill their unfunded pensions and to get compensation increases. Students in my district still had furlough days, increased class sizes, cuts to staff and programs and deferred maintenance. So let’s at least be honest about teachers advocating for more funding for education — it’s about adult jobs, not educating students. Many schools in my district no longer have art, music or science because parents can no longer afford to fundraise for those programs.

  2. FloydThursby1941 4 years ago4 years ago

    The union lost Justices Roberts and Kennedy, in my view, by being too extreme. When they demanded and got $40,000 for Los Angeles Unified teacher Mark Berndt before his 26 year prison sentence, when they defended thousands of bad teachers, each of whom has 40-60 voting parents who hear from their kids how they are suffering, when they fought against merit pay, testing, skill based layoffs, charter schools, and making it easier to lay … Read More

    The union lost Justices Roberts and Kennedy, in my view, by being too extreme. When they demanded and got $40,000 for Los Angeles Unified teacher Mark Berndt before his 26 year prison sentence, when they defended thousands of bad teachers, each of whom has 40-60 voting parents who hear from their kids how they are suffering, when they fought against merit pay, testing, skill based layoffs, charter schools, and making it easier to lay off bad teachers, they lost the middle ground.
    It’s just too extreme. If they had been moderate, they wouldn’t have been devastated by this upcoming decision. They should have taken the middle ground. At least then they wouldn’t have had these PR nightmares. If they just worked to lay off the bottom 1%, they would have avoided the worst bad press and probably won this case. They say things like we just want due process, while behind the scenes fighting to make due process so onerous fewer than 10 teachers are fired annually statewide based on performance. The union side hasn’t been honest in discourse and speaks in code. People are tired of it, including some on the Supreme Court.

    Replies

    • FloydThursby1941 4 years ago4 years ago

      I take back everything I said in terms of prediction. Due to Scalia's unexpected death today at 79, the union will maintain hegemony on educational issues. They may lose Vergara and have to fire the bottom 2%, but on all other issues, they will maintain their power. With Scalia they'd have lost Friedrichs 5-4. Now they win 5-4 unless Breyer or Ginsburg or the new pick surprisingly veer right, but that … Read More

      I take back everything I said in terms of prediction. Due to Scalia’s unexpected death today at 79, the union will maintain hegemony on educational issues. They may lose Vergara and have to fire the bottom 2%, but on all other issues, they will maintain their power. With Scalia they’d have lost Friedrichs 5-4. Now they win 5-4 unless Breyer or Ginsburg or the new pick surprisingly veer right, but that is unlikely. The union was saved by the bell, or by the grim reaper. This is a huge win for the union. My views haven’t changed, but I won’t get my way now.

      • Don 4 years ago4 years ago

        Floyd, the lack of a majority results in the maintaining of the lower court ruling. But once the seat is filled we are likely to see the case reheard, though it may not be in the next session but rather the one after that. It is a delay, a reprieve in the short term for the unions.

        • Dawn Urbanek 4 years ago4 years ago

          Is the purpose of public education to educate students or is it to provide jobs to public employees? When you start cutting 18 days off the school year to protect public employees salaries, you start to wonder.

  3. navigio 4 years ago4 years ago

    My question is how long will it take for school funding to increase after the unions lose here? Union critics have long argued that unions stand in the way of progress so they need to be 'strangled' before the school system deserves adequate resources. So is there an expected increase we can expect to see as a result of this partial strangling? And how much more can we expect to see if the Vergara lawsuit … Read More

    My question is how long will it take for school funding to increase after the unions lose here?
    Union critics have long argued that unions stand in the way of progress so they need to be ‘strangled’ before the school system deserves adequate resources.
    So is there an expected increase we can expect to see as a result of this partial strangling?
    And how much more can we expect to see if the Vergara lawsuit is not overturned?
    We already have a difficult time hiring qualified math and science teachers. Now with the introduction of computer science, that’s become nearly impossible.
    Our kids are waiting.

  4. CarolineSF 4 years ago4 years ago

    These two lines are questionable to me: The left and the unions have themselves helped create the atmosphere in which this suit is being litigated: Davis Guggenheim’s smack at the New York teachers union in his film “Waiting for Superman;” the New York “rubber room” for teachers who were so bad no one wanted them but were hard to fire; 1. Guggenheim made a film ("Waiting for 'Superman' ") funded by far-right interests to promote … Read More

    These two lines are questionable to me: The left and the unions have themselves helped create the atmosphere in which this suit is being litigated: Davis Guggenheim’s smack at the New York teachers union in his film “Waiting for Superman;” the New York “rubber room” for teachers who were so bad no one wanted them but were hard to fire;

    1. Guggenheim made a film (“Waiting for ‘Superman’ “) funded by far-right interests to promote a far-right agenda in education. Either he was so uninformed that he didn’t realize that or he was motivated by personal financial agenda rather than political philosophy and just doing his job. Or maybe, like a surprising number of people, he’s a liberal on other issues but a right-winger on education. (The so-called education “reform” sector has made an interesting ongoing effort to package far-right ideas as liberal, hiring practically the entire past staff of the Bill Clinton White House in one “reform” capacity or another and quoting Martin Luther King liberally.)

    2. From what I’ve read, many teachers confined to the New York City “rubber rooms,” as with those in Los Angeles, have been pulled from classrooms after being accused of one thing or another and are confined while the allegations are investigated — it’s loaded and often inaccurate to describe them as “so bad no one wanted them.”

    I realize those are small points within the larger context, but accuracy matters.

  5. Don 4 years ago4 years ago

    So are you saying that because the Citizen United decision is considered a gift to Republicans, a decision to uphold Abood should be made to balance out funding by helping Democrats this time around?

    Replies

    • TheMorrigan 4 years ago4 years ago

      When one party has a stranglehold on the purse strings, it is never a good thing for democracy (be is Republicans or Democrats) nor for our country. Partisans, though, on both sides, would probably disagree since they hate compromise and only look through the lens of what’s best for their party (themselves?) and not for those unlike them.

  6. Don 4 years ago4 years ago

    Mr. Schrag, you made a pretty good case for why the Court SHOULD overturn Abood and outlaw pubic sector employee fees when you said, "It will hit not only the unions, which may lose a significant part of their revenue, but the Democrats, who rely in significant part on public-sector union support for their campaign funding, and the public schools." Why should anyone be required to pay a fee from their publicly funded paychecks that … Read More

    Mr. Schrag, you made a pretty good case for why the Court SHOULD overturn Abood and outlaw pubic sector employee fees when you said, “It will hit not only the unions, which may lose a significant part of their revenue, but the Democrats, who rely in significant part on public-sector union support for their campaign funding, and the public schools.” Why should anyone be required to pay a fee from their publicly funded paychecks that will go to support a particular political party, as you readily acknowledge?

    Replies

    • TheMorrigan 4 years ago4 years ago

      His answer is implied: To keep politics kinda fair for both major parties with regard to the money that goes into political campaigns.

      His point is about balance.

  7. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman 4 years ago4 years ago

    The California Teachers Association is the richest and most powerful lobby among Sacramento's many lobbying organizations. CTA offers muscle and money for the Democratic Governor's pet projects and he supports theirs. CTA contributions and shoe-leather support/elect CTA-friendly legislators. The system works well for the adults. But it's also contributed to the legal backlash against teachers unions that you have described here. CTA supported Jerry Brown's Prop 30 tax hike which was meant for Kindergarten-community college improvement. … Read More

    The California Teachers Association is the richest and most powerful lobby among Sacramento’s many lobbying organizations. CTA offers muscle and money for the Democratic Governor’s pet projects and he supports theirs. CTA contributions and shoe-leather support/elect CTA-friendly legislators. The system works well for the adults. But it’s also contributed to the legal backlash against teachers unions that you have described here.

    CTA supported Jerry Brown’s Prop 30 tax hike which was meant for Kindergarten-community college improvement. But Prop 30 was vague about where proceeds would be spent. Brown and CTA killed off a competing initiative offered by Molly Munger which would have directed tax hike funding to much-needed K-12 academic program improvement and class-size reduction and prohibited any financing of teacher raises.

    When Brown’s Prop 30 was approved by voters, the money was redirected from Sacramento “back” to local school districts where, by law, spending decisions were to be made and monitored by joint citizen/district committees and delivered to academic program improvements for English learners and poor kids. But there has been little “citizen involvement” with the Prop 30 windfall — which legislators and the CTA are now seeking to extend — and even less public information or understanding about where Prop 30 money is really going.

    In fact, school districts across the state are using Prop 30 money for teacher contract raises, claiming it’s only right after the long dry spell of recession. Such blatant quid pro quos are also never mentioned and they have worked up to now, but they also breed resentment and enmity against teachers unions.

  8. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman 4 years ago4 years ago

    John F: HOLD. I have asked for a clarification of the last paragraph. I don't know of any lawsuit. The California Teachers Association is the richest and most powerful lobby among Sacramento's many lobbying organizations. CTA offers muscle and money for the Democratic Governor's pet projects and he supports theirs. CTA contributions and shoe-leather support elect CTA-friendly legislators. The system works well for the adults. But it's also contributed to the legal backlash against teachers … Read More

    John F: HOLD. I have asked for a clarification of the last paragraph. I don’t know of any lawsuit.

    The California Teachers Association is the richest and most powerful lobby among Sacramento’s many lobbying organizations. CTA offers muscle and money for the Democratic Governor’s pet projects and he supports theirs. CTA contributions and shoe-leather support elect CTA-friendly legislators. The system works well for the adults. But it’s also contributed to the legal backlash against teachers unions that you have described here.

    CTA supported Jerry Brown’s Prop 30 tax hike which was meant for Kindergarten-community college improvement. But Prop 30 was vague about where proceeds would be spent. Brown and CTA killed off a competing initiative offered by Molly Munger which would have directed tax hike funding to much-needed K-12 academic program improvement and class-size reduction and prohibited any financing of teacher raises.

    When Brown’s Prop 30 was approved by voters, the money was redirected from Sacramento “back” to local school districts where, by law, spending decisions were to be made and monitored by joint citizen/district committees and delivered to academic program improvements for English learners and poor kids. But there has been little “citizen involvement” with the Prop 30 windfall — which legislators and the CTA are now seeking to extend — and even less public information or understanding about where Prop 30 money is really going.

    School districts across the state are using Prop 30 money for teacher contract raises. CTA claims it’s only right after the long dry spell of recession. Such blatant quid pro quos are also never mentioned and they have worked up to now, but they also breed resentment and enmity against teachers unions.