2016, Education, Labor, unions — January 11, 2016 at 9:17 am

The future of public sector unions, and perhaps organized labor, lies firmly in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court


2015 was by many accounts a good year for our Liberal agenda as it related to decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court. The affirmation of the Affordable Care Act and the victory of marriage equality for all were important and historical steps in reality and it was, I should add, a reflection of what many of us, no matter your political will, agreed were the right decisions to make. But, as many of us are fully aware, just because a majority agrees with a point of view does not guarantee a victory in the courts.

Today the United State Supreme Court will begin to hear oral arguments on a landmark case that originated in Detroit which could overturn a decision that has been upheld for 39 years. Depending on the outcome of this case, it could literally kill public sector unions in this country and seep deep into the world of organized labor that has benefitted every person who has ever had a job in modern times.

Friedrichs v California Teachers Association is most likely not a case you are familiar with at all unless you are a teacher or a public sector union member, and even then chances are you are not aware of it. But you should be, we all should be, and let me share why.

In a twisted world where the Citizens United SCOTUS decision opened a Pandora’s Box of legalized political manipulation, the Friedrichs case threatens the rights of all public sector employees because it is a direct attack on our First Amendment rights. The original case, D. Louis ABOOD et al., Appellants, v. DETROIT BOARD OF EDUCATION et al. basically maintains that if you opt out of the union, you still must pay a fee to the union to support their work in collective bargaining, which seems fair enough, right? As we have clearly seen by what happened with Right to Work here in Michigan and elsewhere, and the ensuing argument of getting something you aren’t paying for and the hypocrisy of that flawed law, it is not a surprise that this case, both 39 years ago and today, is front and center. The problem is simply that, if the Supreme Court agrees with Friedrichs and overturns Abood, all public sector unions will basically be null and void and that opens yet another opportunity for those at the top to ignore the will of workers and basically do as they please.

At the center of the argument is a simple, yet misunderstood, part of the law that clearly and plainly states that union dues cannot be used for political purposes. And they aren’t. Yet, in the minds of many, if you are supporting the union with your dues for the purpose of collective bargaining then you are a de facto supporter of the politics and stances of said union without a say. Furthermore, and this is the lethal component of Friedrichs, anti-unionists argue that no employee or union member should be forced to support a union whose views they do not agree with and that it is an affront to your First Amendment rights to force you to pay dues to the union for that reason alone, ignoring the true purpose of organized labor which is to collectively bargain for better wages, benefits, safety, etc.

Now, I would be naïve to suggest that this is not about politics, as it surely is. There is not a union today that is pro-Republican, and that is a fact. There is not a single union that has dedicated a majority of their political contributions to Republicans in the history of political giving and there is a profound reason for that, one I hardly need to extrapolate on. Clearly Democrats are more open to the ideas of organized labor and the true purpose of what collective bargaining has done for us all. Democrats have a stellar record in supporting labor, and visa versa. It’s a relationship that makes sense. So, the idea that one would support the other is neither a secret nor a sin.

That is not to say that unions have never supported Republican candidates and, in fact, here in Michigan there have been many Republican lawmakers who have enjoyed campaign contributions from unions over the years, including our own Rick Snyder. But we’ll save that commentary for another column. My point, quite simply, is that with the Supreme Court created political chaos with the Citizens United decision and this was continued with lower courts supporting Right to Work. In states like Wisconsin, where failed presidential candidate Governor Scott Walker rammed through laws that basically neutered collective bargaining for public sector unions, the the wealthy and powerful have pounced on the opportunity to gut organized labor at every point they can. Their unquestionable success in gerrymandering has worked exceptionally well in electing Republican-controlled state legislatures who have run roughshod over the working class for the better part of a decade now. And they show no signs of slowing down.

Friedrichs should scare the living hell out of all of us and if the Supreme Court reverses the Abood case, which has survived many a challenge in the lower courts, organized labor as we know it and respect it, will disappear and will become a footnote in history, sadly enough.

Although the Friedrichs case is centered around educators, who have become a favorite target of legislatures all over the country, this case would effect all public sector union employees, including home health aides, government workers, and anyone connected to public service in any way. It would gut and devastate collective bargaining for millions of workers and erase decades of progress for workers everywhere.

These court challenges have become a centerpiece to overturning legacy laws that have proven over time to be the greatest protectors of our fellow workers. These laws have been the backbone of creating a class of workers that have been given the chance to become homeowners, send their children to school, have legal rights in the workplace. These laws provide safety and quality standards and have given many the opportunity to live what has been defined as the American Dream. But the chance to be part of that dream will simply dissipate into the atmosphere, leaving everyone to fend for themselves, lowering wages, stripping benefits from families, changing the definition of “at will” employment, and exhausting the will of an entire class of workers who will see themselves as disposable at any time, for any reason.

Friedrichs and Abood are as important as any laws we have seen gain celebrity status over the last two decades. But, if the one vote of a Supreme Court goes the wrong way, and that is quite conceivable, what awaits American workers on the other side cannot be defined as of now because no one alive today knows what life is really like without organized labor. Unfortunately, we may soon find out, dear God, we may just find out.