Feb 2016 Advocate: Friedrichs case could be Citizens United for unions


Friedrichs case could be Citizens United for unions

adapted from an article in California Labor Federation’s Labor Edge newsletter by Steve Smith

As faculty focus on providing the best education to help their students succeed, the last thing they want to worry about is their upcoming teacher evaluations. Or what new regulations could be in store for next year, or how they will deal with their Dean should any issues arise in their classrooms. They are there to teach students, not worry about their jobs. It’s the union that takes on the brunt of the big issues affecting faculty working conditions, and lobbies on behalf of teachers’ rights.

But a Supreme Court case in which oral arguments were heard in early January has union members around the country wondering if a ruling will enable the rich and powerful to put yet another nail in the coffin of America’s once thriving middle class by weakening unions of the teachers and other public workers. Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association will determine whether mandatory union fees violate workers’ freedom of speech, and a ruling (which is expected this spring, but will now be impacted by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia) could dictate the future of unions’ ability to collect fees from their memberships in what is a clear attack on collective bargaining.

A decision swaying against unions could effectively implement a national right-to-work policy that secures the right of workers to choose not to pay agency fees and therefore guts unions’ power to finance themselves. The plaintiffs’ First Amendment argument at the root of the case is being dishonestly presented, framing the issue as one of individual rights and freedom of speech rather than a direct assault on unions and the fees they collect.
An Orange County teacher, Rebecca Friedrichs, has her name on the case but the real driving force behind it is a who’s who of right-wing corporate special interests that have spent decades trying to decimate workers and their unions.

Dana Milbank wrote in the Washington Post that the goal of these wealthy backers is anything but noble:
This is about campaign finance, and, in particular, propping up the Republican Party. Citizens United and other recent rulings created the modern era of super PACs and unlimited political contributions by the wealthy. Because there are fewer liberal billionaires…the only real counterweight to Republican super PACs in this new era is union money. And the Supreme Court is about to attack that, too.

It’s not hard to see what a bad omen it would be for democracy if the Supreme Court rewarded this power grab with a favorable decision for the anti-union forces. And California editorial boards agree.

The Sacramento Bee: “In its 2010 Citizens United decision and ones since, the Supreme Court opened the way for unlimited corporate spending on politics. Those decisions have not served democracy well…We hope the court doesn’t further tilt electoral politics by eroding public employee unions’ ability to fund their efforts.”

The L.A. Times flatly rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that fair share fees for bargaining aren’t distinguishable from political spending: “As we have observed before, paying for a service performed at the bargaining table is easily distinguishable from paying for political activities…The vastly more important issue in this case is whether the Supreme Court will undermine the ability of unions to effectively represent all of their workers at the bargaining table. The court should refuse to do so…”

The Friedrichs case serves as a reminder to all of us just how far the powerful corporate interests will go to further erode the protections and rights of working people and the communities they serve. It’s also a reminder that our once thriving democracy increasingly resembles an oligarchy. Let’s hope the Court does the right thing by deferring to precedent and rejecting this ploy by corporate interests to tip the scales more in their favor and away from working people.