The justices’ remarks during arguments in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association point to a major setback looming for public unions. The court will likely rule teachers and other unionized public workers don’t have to pay their unions for representation unless they want to.
That means unions will have much less money to spend tilting elections for Democrats. Not only in California, but also in 22 other states where public workers are forced to support the union whether they want to or not. It’s a political earthquake for New York, New Jersey and Connecticut — where unions dominate public employment and politics.
In this case, Rebecca Friedrichs and nine other California public school teachers don’t want to support the California Teachers Association, because they oppose its views on tenure, lavish pension benefits and other goodies they say their communities can’t afford. They argue that being forced to support a union against their beliefs just to keep their jobs violates their First Amendment rights. A majority of the justices appeared receptive.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, often a swing vote, seemed to side with the teachers. The union, he said, espouses principles “that some teachers strongly object to.” Chief Justice John Roberts, hard to predict, agreed the issue is “whether or not individuals can be compelled to support political views that they disagree with.”
The wild card is Justice Antonin Scalia, who previously has supported mandatory public-union dues. But on Monday, Scalia wondered how it could be “OK to force somebody to contribute to a cause he doesn’t believe in.”
Kennedy, Roberts and Scalia, plus two justices known to oppose mandatory support for unions — Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito — provide five votes to close the spigot of coerced union dues and fees. How much money is at stake? A Buffalo teacher who decided not to join the union could save $917 a year in take-home pay.
For some unions, the losses could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars — as much as 50 percent of what they currently rake in.
About 95% of public-sector union donations go to Democratic candidates. If Friedrichs is upheld, the percentage won't change, but the dollar amount may be cut in half. This is accurately described by McCaughey as an "earthquake." In states like Illinois, New York, and Connecticut, some local Democratic campaigns for the statehouse will be severely affected. Federal races for the House and Senate will not be impacted as much, although other political activities by unions – canvassing, phone banks, GOTV, and other hidden contributions – may be cut back.
In Wisconsin, Governor Walker's reforms are still working their way through the system. The weakening of the unions has concerned those who were protected by them far more than those who feel they don't need them.
I don’t see the point of being in a union anymore,” said Dan Anliker, a 34-year-old technology teacher and father of two in Reedsburg, a tiny city about 60 miles northwest of Madison.
The law required most public employees to pay more for health insurance and to pay more into retirement savings, resulting in an 8 to 10 percent drop in take-home pay. To help compensate for the loss, Anliker said he took an additional 10-hour-a-week job.
“Everyone’s on their own island now,” he said. “If you do a good job, everything will take care of itself. The money I’d spend on dues is way more valuable to buy groceries for my family.”
Sean Karsten, a 32-year-old middle and high school reading instructor in his first year of teaching in Reedsburg, said the unions are “just not something I concern myself with.”
“I just look to keep improving my teaching in the best way I can and try to keep my nose out of the other stuff,” he said.
Walker has pointed to the unions’ membership troubles as a victory — presenting himself as a conservative warrior unafraid of taking on big battles against liberal interests.
Walker’s administration has said forcing public employees to contribute more to retirement plans and health insurance helped local governments save $3 billion. The governor also has credited the 2011 law with saving homeowners money on property taxes while giving school districts the ability to make reforms that increased third-grade reading levels and high school graduation rates. And the law has emboldened Republican state lawmakers to further challenge Wisconsin’s labor movement this year by pushing right-to-work legislation that would allow private-sector workers to opt out of paying union dues — a measure Walker has said he would sign.
What is missing is a sense of entitlement that union members used to have. Without unions being able to hold the taxpayer hostage for overly generous salary and benefits, a rough equilibrium is returning to the equation involving public employees and their masters – the taxpayer.
The reforms put us back on the road to the idea that public service is more of a calling than an opportunity for anyone to enrich himself regardless of his level of competence. I would like to see good teachers get paid a lot more than mediocre or bad teachers and those determinations made rationally and fairly. That might be the ultimate outcome if Friedrichs prevails.