Friedrichs Could Solidify Employee Rights

This op-ed column was originally published at

Rick Berman, CUF Executive Director

The First Amendment is clear: Freedom of speech applies to all Americans.

Or does it? Presently, unionized public-sector employees are forced to fund political agendas that they don’t support via required dues payments.

But that might be changing. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association (CTA), a case that could bring “right-to-work” to the public-sector writ large. A victory for the plaintiffs would prevent public-sector unions from forcibly collecting so-called “agency fees” from public-sector employees who have opted out of union representation — money often used for politics.

For context, labor unions spent more than $140 million on political advocacy in 2014, 99 percent of which went to left-wing causes. National teachers unions, such as the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association, which endorsed Hillary Clinton for president more than a year before the 2016 election, are especially guilty of politicking.

But that $140 million doesn’t even include super PAC funding of political candidates. Nor does it take into account public-sector collective bargaining, an inherently political process itself. Self-interested union bosses use collective bargaining negotiations to push their controversial agenda — such as classroom protections for bad teachers and unsustainable pensions — at the expense of more broadly popular alternatives. When more money is spent on massive pension programs, that means less money to fund mass transit, fix America’s roads or fight violent crime.

It’s funding this type of political spending from “representational activities” that the plaintiffs are asking the Supreme Court to exempt them from. (A previous court decision already allows them to opt out of paying the portion of their dues that funds overt political spending.)

The lead plaintiff in the case, California schoolteacher and former union officer Rebecca Friedrichs, recognizes this dilemma — it prompted her to leave the California Teachers Association altogether. But when she left, Ms. Friedrichs found that she was still legally obligated to pay union dues. It’s a fact of life in the 25 states that don’t have right-to-work on the books: Union member or not, union bosses are entitled to a chunk of your paycheck.

In California, for example, those who opt out of unions still pay about $700 per year to the CTA — which is then used to support an exclusively pro-union agenda. Yet Ms. Friedrichs and the other plaintiffs don’t support granting teacher tenure after only a couple of years or bankrupting the state with an unsustainable pension system.

Union bosses call this paying your fair share for “labor peace.” But there’s nothing peaceful about having your hard-earned income forcibly taken by a labor organization.

The plaintiffs are not alone in their concern: About 29,000 teachers pay agency fees to the union, even though they all turned down union representation. And this only includes California.

It’s not a matter of being anti-union. It’s about being pro-employee. Ms. Friedrichs herself admits, “I am not anti-union at all. I came from a union family. I am against forced unions.”

Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association is part of a broader effort to extend workplace freedom to the entire workforce — public and private.

What about private-sector union employees? The Employee Rights Act, legislation currently before Congress, is their best hope to attain similar on-the-job protections, though it goes much further in also protecting employees whose workplaces are considering unionization.

The Employee Rights Act would require a secret ballot election when employees are considering paying for union representation. Under current labor law, union bosses can circumvent the democratic process by using “card check” procedures denying employees their right to a private vote. The bill would also protect employee privacy by allowing them to refuse turning over their personal information to labor organizers during these organizing campaigns. And it would finally criminalize union violence and intimidation tactics at the federal level.

With eight provisions in total and 80 percent public approval, including union household voters, the act would take power away from union bosses and put it back in the hands of employees.

When it comes to individual rights, workplace law should work for all employees. The Supreme Court ruling in favor of Friedrichs and passage of the Employee Rights Act would go a long way toward getting us there.