New Orleans Arguments are scheduled before the US Supreme Court in the case of Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association on the issue of whether or not unions have the right to collect fair share payments under union shop agreements for public employees in the California school system. Fair share payments are not dues, but an assessment paid by workers to offset the cost of representation by the union in collective bargaining and generally around issues of wages and terms and conditions of employment.
Earlier decisions have held that money spent by unions on political matters and some forms of legislative lobbying may be returned to workers. Earlier decisions in the Abood case and other cases previously decided before the Supreme Court have held that such payments are not breeches of first amendment freedom of speech rights. Sadly, the more recent decision by the Supreme Court in the Quinn case, where Illinois home health workers were exempted from fair share payments as not being regular state employees, indicated that there is a potential majority in the hard right coalition of Justices that is panting at the opportunity to overturn Abood, effectively ending “fair share” for public workers in the twenty odd states where it is allowed.
Visiting recently with union organizers in California, long a bastion of public sector union strength and a bellwether of union progress, the consensus seemed to be that Friedrichs was all over but the shouting protests and the painful cries and moans of mourning. The Service Employees has engaged in a major, intensive signup campaign in the effort to retain as many members as possible and convert as many fair share payers to full membership as they can before the decision is announced and becomes effective. Their efforts may be larger than other unions, given their huge size in California, but they are typical of some level of program being undertaken in every union with public sector membership.
Plaintiffs in the suit reportedly are claiming that they believe unions may only experience a loss of “10 percent, maybe 15 tops,” but that’s a more optimistic view than organizers would hold. The impact of the Quinn decision among homecare unions in Washington, Illinois, California and elsewhere was double those levels and in some cases worse. Furthermore, this doesn’t take into account the huge diversion of resources now in California to maintain some level of existing support from the membership, which did not have to be made previously, but will now be a permanent expense. That’s money that could not be spent on new organizing, new programs, or any other initiatives by the union, but would now be plowed into maintenance of membership on an ongoing basis.
Steven Greenhouse writing in The Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jan/04/wisconsin-public-sector-unions-plot-fightback-as-supreme-court-case-looms) about the impact of Scott Walker’s Wisconsin anti-union program is even more chilling. Admittedly these measures are many times worse that Friedrichs, but nonetheless are only a few steps down the road on the same path the conservatives are pushing in state after state where they are trying to eliminate all payroll deductions to unions in Texas, Missouri, and elsewhere. AFSCME, the American Federation of State County & Municipal Employees, a longtime leader in public sector unionization for the last 50 years was founded in Wisconsin, but has now lost two-thirds of its membership and been forced to abandon many of its collective agreements. The same has happened to the teachers in district after district.
Public sector members and fee payers have fueled the efforts of US unions and the attempts to turn back the decline in membership and strength over the last generation, even as we have failed to stem the tide. Private sector density is now close to 6% and public sector density has been the last bulwark of union strength.
The increasing certainty of a setback in Friedrichs will see more crumbling of some of labor’s last walls of defense. Winter is coming and without some relief or change of direction it could be permanent.