On Monday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that experts say could provide a sizeable blow to the unions that represent millions of American public employees.
“There is a huge sector of the U.S. labor movement that is now going to potentially experience a dramatic change if the court rules in favor of the plaintiff,” said Kent Wong, the director of the UCLA Labor Center.
The case concerns a teacher in California, Rebecca Friedrichs, who has sued the California Teachers Association, arguing that being required to pay a fee to the union violates her First Amendment rights. Friedrichs is not a member of the union, but, like many other public employees, is required to pay a so-called agency fee to cover the costs of collective bargaining and other negotiations with the school district—union activities that all teachers, even non-union teachers like Friedrichs, benefit from in the form of higher salaries and better benefits. To be clear, these agency fees are different from dues that union members pay, which can be used by the unions for political expenses such as lobbying and electoral work. The law allows public-sector employees to opt out of dues and just pay an agency fee to cover the cost of bargaining—an accommodation intended to protect people’s First Amendment rights. Teachers who, like Friedrichs, have opted out of the union are still represented by it in various contract negotiations, which is why they are required to pay a fee. In California, members pay annual dues that average about $1,000 a year, while non-members pay about $600 to $650 for the agency fee alone.