Unions brace for Supreme Court case that could 'bankrupt' their influence
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Last year the US supreme court handed major victories to liberal Americans, legalising gay marriage and throwing out a challenge to Barack Obama’s landmark healthcare reforms. But 2016 may be less kind. On Monday the justices will begin to hear a case that labor leaders argue could “bankrupt” public-sector unions and geld one of the most powerful forces in politics.

Rebecca Friedrichs, who has taught elementary school children for close to 30 years, mostly in the Savanna school district in Anaheim, California, is the lead plaintiff in a case she says is being brought against the “tyranny” of unions dues.

“We are required, as a condition of employment, to financially support teachers unions and their political agendas,” Friedrichs wrote in an editorial for the Orange County Register.

“Americans of all political preferences would rise up against such tyranny if their rights were squelched by corporations, yet teachers unions have been legally trampling the free-speech rights of teachers throughout our nation for decades through forced dues used to fund their one-sided political agendas.”

If her case is successful, it would sharply limit the power of public employee unions, which have charged “fair share” fees to non-union members when the union negotiates their contracts.

A win would cost unions millions of dollars in revenue, and be a heavy blow to a major backer of the Democrat party.

Altogether 10 California teachers are suing their union so that they do not have to pay any dues. If the court rules in favor of the plaintiff in Friedrichs v California Teachers Association (CTA), California would essentially become the latest, and largest, “right to work” state for public sector employees – meaning union membership would not be a requirement.

Powerful, right-wing anti-union forces have lined up to back the case. The teachers, who are represented by the Center for Individual Rights, a conservative organization with links to billionaire conservatives the Koch brothers, argue that the money they pay to the CTA is used for political purposes that do not represent their interest and often go against what they believe. The union argues that the educators, who pay only a portion of the full dues as a “fair share”, are only paying the union for the costs of bargaining and negotiations.

But the CTA is no political lightweight either. The union is one of the biggest players in the state politics and one of the biggest spenders when it comes to political contributions in the Golden State.

Related: Wisconsin's public-sector unions plot fightback as supreme court case looms

From 2000 to 2009, the CTA spent about $211.9m on campaign contributions . According to the Los Angeles Times , in the following three years the union spent another $40m, including $4.7m to elected Jerry Brown as governor. And then in 2014, the union spent about $7m to re-elect Tom Torlakson as the state superintendent of public instruction.

According to the union, only a fraction of its funds is dedicated to political contributions. The rest is spent on its defending its members and negotiating a contract through collective bargaining.

The teachers suing the CTA over dues argue that any work done by the union, even collective bargaining, is political.

To Erika Jones, who is an active member in the CTA, being a teacher itself is political.

“The union, of course, does political action, but our job in itself as educators is in a political field. I don’t even know why you wouldn’t want that voice, that political voice,” she explained. “Education is on every politician’s platform. It’s about either changing or reforming education. You are constantly being talked at and talked to, so if you are not in that discussion when you are an expert then why wouldn’t you want that voice to be heard.”

Friedrichs and her co-plaintiffs believe they deserve a choice about whether they want to belong to a union or not.

Related: California's right-to-work fight forces unions to prove their relevance

“In our view, paying fees to a union should not be a prerequisite for teaching in a public school. No one in the US should be forced to give money to a private organization he or she disagrees with fundamentally. Teachers deserve a choice,” Harlan Elrich, one of the plaintiffs, wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed this month .

The teachers in my family disagree about the union. Some support it and others don’t. But everyone agrees that each of us should have the right to decide whether to join. So I’m not against the union; I’m against the state forcing me to pay union fees against my will.

The CTA declined to “speculate” about how many members it might lose if the Supreme Court rules in favor of Friedrich.

“CTA works to engage all educators in the union and has over 91% membership,” Becky Zoglman, CTA’s associate executive director, told the Guardian. “We’ll continue to do that outreach regardless of the Friedrich’s decision.”

But the experience of 25 states where right-to-work laws are already on the books show that union membership rates do indeed decline over the long term after the laws are introduced.

As of August of last year, there were 325,000 educator members of CTA and about 28,000 fee payers. The 2015 dues for CTA were $644. Those who wanted to pay just a fair-share portion of the dues were issued a rebate of $230. That means they still paid a total of $414.

CTA is not the only union that could be affected by the ruling. Other public-sector unions - like those for nurses and firefighters - could also be affected.

In 2014, 28% of California’s 169,765 state government workers were paying “fair share dues”. A ruling against unions could lead to these workers having to pay no fees at all.

“The intended effect is to essentially bankrupt public sector unions, including many nurse unions,” said Jean Ross, co-president of National Nurses United in June when the Supreme Court first announced that it would hear the case. A ruling in favor of Friedrichs and her co-plaintiffs would essentially make California a right-to-work state for public sector employees. “Right-to-work means lower pay, higher poverty rates, and much greater income disparity. That’s the same reason why groups like supporters of Friedrichs v CTA have targeted states like California that have avoided such anti-worker laws.”

A change could cost public sector workers more than their unions dues. Public employees in right-to-work states earn $1,000 less than those living in “fair-share” states, according to Jeffrey Keefe, professor emeritus at the school of labor and management at Rutgers University.

“In states where unions cannot collect fair-share fees, the employees they represent earn lower wages and compensation, regardless of whether they are union members or not,” he said . “Public sector unions exist primarily for collective bargaining and their capacity to bargain effectively on behalf of public-sector employees is closely linked to their ability to collect fair-share fees and maintain high levels of union membership. Free-riding undermines their ability to fulfill these duties.”

Employees who benefit from the union’s negotiations but do not want to pay dues are often referred to as free-loaders by the dues-paying members of the union.

“Fair-share has been ruled on by the Supreme Court before and it’s really the best way to have a compromise. Ultimately as an educator, you are benefiting from your union, you are benefiting from bargaining and negotiations, so to be able to take the benefit but not actually help pull your own weight, I think that’s a tad ... misguided,” said Jones, who has been a teacher for 11 years and active member of the CTA for more than seven years.

A ruling in favor of Friedrichs “would be really devastating” she told the Guardian.

“Devastating in the way that we are trying to improve public education and I feel like we have this distraction and it’s taking away from that conversation. We are really not talking about students. We are still focused on this misguided conversation.”

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