Teaching Profession

A Primer on the Supreme Court Case That Teachers’ Unions Have Been Fearing

By Liana Loewus — September 28, 2017 3 min read
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Today, the U.S. Supreme Court officially agreed to review a case on public-employee union fees that could potentially deliver a harsh blow to the nation’s teachers’ unions.

You may find yourself asking: Wait, haven’t we been through this? Wasn’t someone named Friedrichs involved? And why is this coming up again?

All good questions. Let’s take a look at what’s at stake, and how we got here.

Why is this coming up again? I thought we were done with this.

You’re right, the Supreme Court did recently hear another case on union fees: Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association.

In that case, lead plaintiff Rebecca Friedrichs and nine other teachers who were not members of the teachers’ union argued they shouldn’t be forced to pay fees to the union.

About half of states allow unions to charge fees, known as “agency” or “shop” fees, to people who don’t join the union. (This came out of a 1977 Supreme Court case called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education). These fees make up for the cost of collective bargaining. In K-12 education, teachers’ unions collectively bargain to negotiate things like salaries and benefits and class-size caps, which benefit all workers.

The plaintiffs objected to paying the fees, arguing that collective bargaining is “quintessentially political,” and that the unions express views that not all employees agree with.

Friedrichs and other nonmembers were paying about $650 a year in agency fees. Full union membership costs about $1,000 a year.

So what happened with Friedrichs?

The Friedrichs case opened in January 2016, and during oral arguments things weren’t looking good for the unions.

But in February that year, Justice Antonin Scalia, who likely would have voted against agency fees, died.

That left the High Court deadlocked 4-4 on the Friedrichs case. The lower court ruling—in favor of the unions—remained.

What’s this new case?

The new case, which the Supreme Court will hear this year, is called Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31.

In this case, Illinois health-care worker Mark Janus argues that he should not be forced to pay monthly union fees to keep his job. He pays about $540 a year in compulsory fees to the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, which collectively bargains on his behalf. The ruling would apply to teachers’ unions.

What’s likely to happen with this case?

With Justice Neil M. Gorsuch now on the court, there’s a good chance agency fees will be deemed unconstitutional.

What does that mean for the teachers’ unions?

A lot.

The unions will lose out on a major source of revenue, and will likely see a big dip in membership as well. (Many teachers who are forced to pay the fees decide to just kick in the extra dollars and become full members.)

Teachers’ union leaders are well aware this is likely to happen, and fully admit that they are worried.

“We know we’ll be facing things like the loss of agency fees,” NEA’s Secretary Treasurer Princess Moss said at the Representative Assembly this summer. The National Education Association has about 87,000 fee-payers and the American Federation of Teachers has about 89,000, according to labor filings.

For more on the union-fee controversy, see these related stories:

Photo: The Supreme Court Building in Washington, Tuesday, March 28, 2017.AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.