Should the Supreme Court rule for the plaintiff in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association—as, given what transpired in oral arguments, seems eminently likely—the right-wing backlash against organized labor of the last several years, from the stripping of collective-bargaining rights to the passage of “right to work” legislation in former union strongholds across the Midwest, will appear to be mere tremors before the “big one.” It is an earthquake that will be felt everywhere in American politics, and in American life. If the Court decides that requiring public-sector workers to pay either union dues or “agency fees” toward the bargaining done in their name and from which they benefit violates free speech protections, thereby embedding even deeper in constitutional law the farcical notion that money is speech, unions expect to see a dramatic decline in membership, revenue, and, consequentially, political activity. The great bulwark of progressive politics in the United States will be undermined at its very foundations.
It is vital in such a situation not to blame the victim: The backlash against unions has been financed by wealthy capitalists who know exactly how much easier it would be to further their agenda in statehouses and in Congress without strong unions to push back against them. Yet if the regression is to be stopped and even reversed, labor organizations and their well-wishers must examine what it is about unions that have made them so vulnerable to attack. Solidarity requires no less. For this second installment of That’s Debatable, our new series of debates on questions that remain unsettled on the left, we asked four writers and activists to ponder the extent to which organized labor is responsible for its current predicament, and to consider, after Friedrichs, what now is to be done. —Richard Kreitner
Things might have gone otherwise
After last month’s oral arguments in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, there’s not much doubt that before the end of its term in June the Supreme Court will rule that the “agency fees” that non-members of public employee unions are required to pay to cover their share of collective-bargaining costs violate those individuals’ free-speech rights.
For the right-wingers who rushed this case to the Court to get a decision before November’s elections, such a ruling, overturning a 40-year precedent, would be a three-fer: It would hit not only the lead defendant in the case and many other public-employee unions but also the Democratic Party, which receives much of those unions’ political support, and the public school system itself, whose funding and protection from privatization depend in considerable part on the unions’ political influence.
But this case is not just about aggressive conservative activism or a right-wing Court that has made itself another political branch of government. In several ways, the unions helped create the atmosphere in which the Friedrichs suit was brought.
It’s a long list: the rigid teacher tenure and seniority laws enacted through union clout in California and elsewhere that make it virtually impossible to fire even the most incompetent or abusive teachers; the resulting “rubber rooms,” or reassignment centers, in New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, where teachers accused of sexual harassment, drug abuse, and other offenses sat idly for months or even years, waiting for their hearings, collecting pay and benefits while doing nothing; the legal requirement that whenever tight budgets make layoffs necessary, the cuts are made following the LIFO rule (last in, first out), regardless of competence or commitment. The actual rubber rooms are mostly gone, but the so-called “dance of the lemons,” the constant transfer of incompetents, often to schools serving the neediest kids, and the warehousing of alleged abusers, continues.