Supreme Court Poised to Strike Down Mandatory Dues for Public Union Representation

Center for Media and Democracy’s Brendan Fischer says the Bradley Foundation and Koch Brothers’ fingerprints are all over this case, which purports to have large grassroots support for individual rights but instead are backed by deep-pocketed donors

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Story Transcript

SPEAKER: The truth is that all groups, all private organizations in this country, have to get dues and members voluntarily. Let unions do the same.

JESSICA DESVARIEUX: On Monday the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for a case that could mean life or death for public unions. At the center of the case is Rebecca Friedrichs. She is a California public school teacher currently paying agency fees that fund a union’s cost in collective bargaining for contracts. It covers members and non-members alike, and that’s something Ms. Friedrichs says in a recent TV interview she does not want, regardless of its benefits.

REBECCA FRIEDRICHS: I never asked the unions to represent me. They are the ones who requested laws to give them the right to bargain on behalf of everyone.

DESVARIEUX: Friedrichs and nine other teachers are making a First Amendment claim against the California teachers union, arguing that the union compelling them to pay an agency fee is unwanted association and violates their First Amendment rights. An argument Center for Media and Democracy’s Brendan Fischer says becomes more hazy when you look at who is funding the litigation of this case and their real agenda.

BRENDAN FISCHER: So the group that brought the case is the Center for Individual Rights. Their single biggest funder is the Bradley Foundation, which is a Milwaukee-based foundation that’s really huge. It’s got an $800 million endowment and it’s led by a guy named Michael Grebe, who was Scott Walker’s campaign chair. And Scott Walker, of course, is the Wisconsin governor that eviscerated unions in the state, led to a significant decline in unionization in Wisconsin.

And what the Center for Individual Rights is trying to do is bring this, is bring this national. And they’re doing it in coordination with groups like ALEC, with groups like the State Policy Network, which is a, a network of right-wing think tanks. State Policy Network actually organized a rally outside of the, outside of the Supreme Court today. And the Koch brothers are also involved. A number of different Koch funding groups were involved in this rally. A number of Koch-backed organizations and Bradley-backed organizations filed amicus briefs in the case.

So they’re creating this appearance of there being broad grassroots support for these policies, these anti-union policies, but really they’re all going back to a small number of deep-pocketed donors who’ve had unions in their sight for, for decades.

DESVARIEUX: Fischer adds that these donors are the same supporters behind cases dismantling the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action laws. He adds that if the court rules in favor of Friedrichs, it could mean a serious unraveling of public unions.

FISCHER: In a unionized workplace a union has to negotiate on behalf of everybody. And everybody in that workplace benefits from higher wages, better benefits. And if they’re not required, if non-union members are not required to pay for those costs of representation, then you starve the union, you defund the union. And that’s basically the, the ultimate goal, is to defund the union, which is going to lead to a drop in, a drop in unionization. A drop in union influence. And that’s going to, in the education context, that’s likely going to lead to more privatization because you don’t have the teachers unions standing in the way of the privatization of education. And then across the public sector you’re probably going to see a significant drop in, a significant drop in unionization. Workers are going to have less of a voice in the, in the workplace.

DESVARIEUX: But in her workplace, Friedrichs says she’s gotten much support from her colleagues, who are against union practices like deciding termination based on seniority. Even as a non-union member she sees agency fees as violating her individual rights.

REBECCA FRIEDRICHS: We’re asking for teachers to be able to decide for ourselves, without fear and without coercion, whether or not to join or fund a union.

FISCHER: Ultimately this really is about, this case really is about defunding, defunding unions writ large. The Center for Individual Rights and other organizations and institutions that are bringing this case and supporting this case are framing it in terms of individual teacher rights. But when you look overall at their agenda it’s about, it’s about eviscerating unions. It’s about trying to limit a worker’s voice on the job, in the workplace, both in the public sector for now and then also, after that in the private sector.

And unions do–they drive up unions for everybody. They drive, they’ve helped build the middle class, and the decline of the middle class is directly correlated with the, with the decline in unions. And that’s, and that’s the ultimate goal, to limit the influence of unions not only in the workplace but also in the, in the political sphere.

DESVARIEUX: California Teachers Association lawyers argued current law finds that agency fee provisions are necessary, since public sector labor law imposes significant responsibilities on unions. Therefore if non-union members could opt out of paying all dues, that would create a severe free rider problem, since employers and unions could not require employees to pay for the services that the law requires the union to provide.

Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts rebutted, saying, quote: if your employees have shown overwhelmingly that they want collective bargaining, then it seems to me the free rider concern that’s been raised is really insignificant. A sign that the majority will rule in favor of Friedrichs, putting the future of public unions in great jeopardy.

For the Real News Network, Jessica Desvarieux, Washington.

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