Teachers’ unions around the country let out a huge sigh of relief back in March when the U.S. Supreme Court, evenly divided ideologically after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, deadlocked on the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case, which could have barred unions from collecting so-called “agency” or “fair share” fees from nonmembers who benefit from the unions’ collective bargaining. But it appears that the unions’ luck has run out.
Though agency fees are a common practice in the K-12 space, in Friedrichs, a handful of California educators argued that collective bargaining is essentially a political act so forcing them to subsidize that act violated their First Amendment free speech protections. Republicans—who have long been skeptical of unions—tend to agree.
Since Scalia’s death in February, Republicans in the U.S. Senate have refused to hold confirmation hearings for any Supreme Court nominee put forth by outgoing Democratic President Barack Obama. They hoped that if a Republican prevailed in November, the court could maintain its decades-old conservative bent. That bet has paid off with the election of Republican Donald Trump. This means that teachers’ unions can expect that they will soon face a far more hostile court than the one that deadlocked on the Friedrichs case.
Lee Saunders—the president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), a union representing 1.3 million public sector employees across the country—told The Guardian that he expects it’s going to be difficult for unions to maintain their Friedrichs victory for very long.
“There are at least 27 cases in the lower courts that would do the same thing Friedrichs would have, and you have to expect that one of those cases will bubble up to the Supreme Court,” Saunders told the newspaper.
While proponents of teachers’ unions say they serve as vital protectors of teachers’ rights, many in the so-called education reform community feel otherwise. They generally think that teachers’ unions hold too much sway over state education policies to the detriment of reforms that could improve student outcomes, and some of them see the downfall of unions’ abilities to collect fees as an upside to Trump’s victory.
Derrell Bradford, the executive director of the New York Campaign for Achievement Now, wrote about what Trump’s victory would mean for their cause on the pro-reform website, The 74.
“While there are serious concerns with such a nominee on myriad issues, a refiling of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association seems inevitable,” wrote Bradford. “The result could be catastrophic for the National Education Association’s and the American Federation of Teachers’ political action at the state and local level.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.