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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