Since the beginning of Rebecca Friedrichs’ lawsuit, unions have insisted that agency fees do not violate First Amendment rights because collective bargaining is not political.
However, at the Seventh Democratic Debate in Flint, Michigan, moderator Anderson Cooper directly asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton if she thought Teacher’s Unions protected bad teachers through policies, such as teacher tenure, that they push in collective bargaining
“There’s an awful lot of great teachers in this country,” Cooper said. “It’s an incredibly difficult job, one of the most difficult jobs there is, but union rules often make it impossible to fire bad teachers, and that means disadvantaged kids are sometimes taught by the least qualified. Do you think unions protect bad teachers?”
Secretary Clinton waffled on her answer, and everyone from the New York Times to Education Week agreed her lack of a direct answer showed her unwillingness to tackle the tough issues that may put her at odds with her union endorsers.
But the real take-away from this moment at the debate is how it reveals teacher tenure to be a fundamentally politically issue. The unions have maintained that collective bargaining does not involve political questions, but Anderson Cooper’s question got to the point that traditional Democratic Support for unions necessarily implicates all the consequences of what goes on during collective bargaining. In fact, this exchange highlights just how political the issues raised in collective bargaining really are: political enough to be a topic of controversy at a presidential debate.
The presence of this topic at a presidential debate only further solidified Friedrich’s argument that these are political issues that teachers should have a right to support or not support. For the purposes of the First Amendment and this case, the merits of Rebecca Friedrichs or Hillary Clinton’s views on teacher tenure are not important. What is important is recognizing that this is a controversial issue on which people can disagree. And because of that, we should allow all public employees the right to engage in this national debate for themselves.
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