High court challenge to required union fees threatens fairness

From San Francisco Chronicle 1-9-16

By Eric C. Heins

Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association seeks to make it harder for educators to come together to bargain for smaller class sizes, safer schools and better learning environments for all students.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Monday over whether teachers in California and 22 other states working under a union contract must pay union fees even if they are not union members.It would overturn commonsense jurisprudence that allows states and localities to choose for themselves whether to require public employees to pay their share for the union representation they receive.


No one can be forced to join a union. But unions are legally required to serve everyone in a unionized workplace. Under a precedent established in Abood vs. Detroit Board of Education nearly 40 years ago, almost half of the states have chosen to support stable and effective collective bargaining by allowing nonmembers to be charged for the costs of their union representation in collective bargaining and workplace contract administration.


Never in our country’s history has the court suggested that states are not free to make that choice. But the petitioners in Friedrichs are asking the court to take that decision away from the states that now allow for such fair-share fees, including California.


If the court were to heed that extraordinary call, the result could be devastating. Collective bargaining is one of the most powerful tools educators have to ensure student success.


For example, in Oakland last year, educators and administrators approved a contract that reduced class sizes for the neediest students and also decreased counselor caseloads. In September, Seattle teachers collectively bargained for guaranteed recess for all elementary students, as well as racial equity committees at 30 schools. For educators in New York, the latest contract ensures school-based professional development that helps every teacher enter the classroom ready to reach, teach and inspire.


If the court overturns Abood and eliminates fees for nonmembers, unions will still be required to represent them, but some workers would be paying more than their fair share. Allowing some to opt out of paying will make it harder for educators to stand together for safe workplaces, professional development, and the schools our students deserve.


The damage from potentially eliminating fair-share fees isn’t limited to students and schools. Any decision in Friedrichs will apply not just to teachers, but to all government employees, including firefighters, nurses and social workers. Essentially, taking away fair-share fees would have broad consequences affecting all public service workers, their communities, and the middle class at large.


Today, in states without full union rights, employees earn less, fewer employers offer health insurance, and retirement security is reduced, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Overturning the fair-share precedent will spread these dismal setbacks to workers in every state in America.


As educators, we are fearful about these consequences, not just for us and our families, but for our communities and students. According to a study by In the Public Interest, by providing family-friendly wages and benefits, governments “historically created intentional ‘ladders of opportunity’ to allow workers and their families to reach the middle class.”


The Friedrichs case is fundamentally about something we teach our students every day: fairness. Since 1977, Abood has provided a fair compromise. The court should preserve Abood, and fairness for students, educators and the middle class.


Eric C. Heins is an elementary school teacher in the Pittsburg Unified School District and serves as the president of the 325,000-member California Teachers Association.