Victory: Supreme Court Ends Compelled Union Dues

Today, the Supreme Court ended compelled union dues and restored First Amendment rights to thousands of public employees across the country. In Janus v. AFSCME, the Court ruled that workers have a right to decide for themselves whether or not to join a union. After 40 years of coerced union dues, public employees will now enjoy the same First Amendment rights as everyone else and will no longer be forced to support organizations they oppose.

CIR has been fighting to restore the free speech rights of public employees since 2013, when it filed Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. In Janus, the Supreme Court relied on the unique experience of the teacher-plaintiffs in Friedrichs to reach its decision. The Court noted that “The public importance of subsidized union speech is especially apparent in this field, since educators make up by far the largest category of state and local government employees, and education is typically the largest component of state and local government expenditures.” And since “Speech in this area also touches on fundamental questions of education policy,” it’s undeniable that compelling individual teachers to support union speech is unconstitutional.

The case is a significant victory that reestablishes the free speech rights of thousands of public employees. After years of fighting for their First Amendment rights, public employees will finally enjoy the right to decide for themselves whether or not to join a union.

On February 6th, 2017, The Center for Individual Rights filed a lawsuit against the state of California and the California Teachers Association on behalf of eight California public school teachers and the Association of American Educators. The teachers are challenging California’s “agency shop” law, which violates the First Amendment by forcing them to pay annual fees to the union – even if they are not a member.

California is one of twenty-three states that forces teachers and other public employees – even those who have expressly opted out of union membership – to pay several hundred dollars in union fees every year. The unions in turn use these “agency fees” to finance their collective bargaining agenda. In the public sector, collective bargaining has profound implications on a host of controversial issue that are central to education policy. By bargaining with the government, unions can effectively advance their policy on issues such as school choice, class sizes, tenure, and allocation of tax dollars.

The eight teacher plaintiffs in Yohn v. CTA have political and moral objections to many of the policies on which unions spend their money. And they are not alone. A poll conducted by Education Next and the Harvard Kennedy School revealed that many teachers disagree with their union on some or all of the issues that unions typically negotiate on: 34% disagree with their union over tenure. 41% disagree with their union over charter schools. Finally, 50% of public school teachers believe that compelled union dues are wrong and unconstitutional.

These are issues on which people – including teachers – have diverse opinions and reasonably disagree. The teachers in this case are asking the courts to respect their First Amendment right to choose – without fear or coercion – whether or not to join or fund a union.

Why the Courts are the Answer

The Supreme Court has recognized the grave First Amendment problems that arise when a state coerces political speech. In 2014, Justice Alito observed in Harris v. Quinn, that, “Agency-fee provisions unquestionably impose a heavy burden on the First Amendment interests of objecting employees.” As he explained, it is a “bedrock principle that, except perhaps in the rarest of circumstances, no person in this country may be compelled to subsidize speech by a third party that he or she does not wish to support.”

In 2016, CIR represented Rebecca Friedrichs and other teachers in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association – a case raising the same issue. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Friedrichs on January 11, 2016. However, after the untimely death of Justice Scalia the Court issued an equally divided, non-binding opinion.

By law, a tie vote by the Supreme Court does not settle a legal question; it simply leaves the lower court opinion in place and reserves the legal question for a future case.

With judicial nominations now moving forward, it is imperative to have the issue ready for the full Supreme Court to consider. Questions of fundamental rights – like the right to free speech and free association as laid out in this case – deserve a final and binding decision from the Court.

Teachers should not be compelled to support an agenda they disagree with. If the First Amendment protects anything, it protects the rights of all individuals to speak and act according to their conscience.

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