Back in the old days, unions could get crushed easily with police crackdowns and armed thugs. These days, business conducts its union busting the civilized way, in court and at the bank. The question before the Supreme Court last week in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association wasn’t about free speech or workers’ rights on the job so much as it was about the right of unions to exist as financial and legal institutions.
The conflict before the court, according to conservatives, is a tale of Big Labor’s oppressive reign over civil servants: Rebecca Friedrichs, an ordinary California schoolteacher, says her union’s agenda is violating her First Amendment rights. But the case fundamentally has little to do with free expression, and it has lots to do with fair payment for a vital service. And paradoxically, a single teacher’s reluctance to pay her fair share to the organization that negotiates her job contract is silencing the voice all public-sector workers, as the court considers a policy that would defund their unions.
Yet the precedent that the Friedrichs case could overturn, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, protects more than just the institutional role of unions. With a union membership rate of about one in three, public sector unionization is today much stronger than private-sector union representation, which has dwindled to under 7 percent. Ensuring labor’s power in government agencies and public services is critical for ensuring equity in both the work that government does and the workforce that executes public policy. The pro-labor side would agree with the conservatives that constitutional rights are at issue—not because unions threaten freedom expression, but because labor power is fundamental to democratic values. The increasing concentration of political power in the hands of a moneyed elite shows how democracy suffers in an intensely unequal society, and conversely, how economic justice, workplace justice, and representative government are interlinked.
As Richard Kahlenberg of The Century Foundation writes, Friedrichs “pits the right of public employees to band together and form effective unions to pursue the common interests of workers against the free speech rights of dissenting public employees” who simply don’t agree with their union’s political stance and therefore feel justified in withholding funds from it.
Besides, labor advocates question the entire notion of equating agency fees with “speech,” since the funds in question are not even used to fund “political activity,” per se, but to support the basic “bread and butter” functions running a union and negotiating a contract. (The US Chamber of Commerce, by the way, represents many businesses, but pursues an aggressive pro-corporate agenda that’s hardly free of controversy.) Under Abood, Kahlenberg argues, there’s a clear separation between the two functions, and even on those day-to-day bargaining issues, the union still operates along democratic principles, so that “when a majority decides to take a position on collective bargaining on a given issue, the individual worker must abide by that democratic result.”