An article at In These Times expresses frustration that the media keeps referring to Friedrichs v. CTA as the Supreme Court case on “union dues.”
Nonmembers, the author rightly points out, can opt out of paying union dues. What is at issue in Friedrichs is the agency fee, which public employees are required to pay to help finance the costs associated with collective bargaining. But from there the author assumes that because the case concerns agency fees and not dues, there is no First Amendment question presented.
Agency fees, however, are used to pay for more than you standard bread and butter bargaining issues. For instance, as the union attorney conceded in oral arguments before the Supreme Court, agency fees can be used to pay for lobbying campaigns, op-eds, and all sorts of political activity so long as they are related to what the union traditionally advocates for in collective bargaining. For instance, if the union lobbies with the local school district about teacher tenure policies, then agency fees can be passed up to lobby at the state capitol to enshrine teacher tenure policies in state law.
There are no other arrangements where the government can compel a citizen to pay a private lobbying organization to engage in lobbying.
Lastly, the author at In These Times argues that because unions are democratically chosen by teachers, and then vote on whether or not to charge an agency fee, that there is no free speech violation because the whole process is democratic. Conveniently, that version of events leaves out a few important details.
First, the union is elected by the teachers in a democratic fashion. However, once elected, the union remains in power almost indefinitely. Rebecca Friedrichs began teaching in California in 1988. Her union was in place long before she began teaching and has never held a recertification vote. Most of those who are teachers today may never have had the opportunity to vote on the union representing them.
Second, upon resigning their union membership, Rebecca Friedrichs and her co-plaintiffs lose many of their benefits such as insurance. They also no longer have a say in what the union collectively bargains for. When the union bargains every year to reinstate the agency fee, they have undemocratically imposed a fee on non-members who had no say in the process.
Yes, Friedrichs v. CTA is not about “union dues.” But that doesn’t make compelled agency fees any less offensive to the principles of the First Amendment.