WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) – Legal challenges to labor unions are commonplace at the Supreme Court, but some educators see the latest case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, as a deliberate attack on minorities and middle-class Americans.
“In the past, unions represented those individuals who did not have representation, who were discriminated against for various reasons … It is really an issue of civil rights,” insists Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers Union (WTU).
Davis knows a thing or two about civil rights.
“As an African-American educator coming from a school district in the South — I moved here when I was in the third grade — I understand the importance and the power of being in a union,” shared Davis in her Southeast D.C. office.
It was the education union that saved Davis’s first job. She taught drafting, a high-tech subject she says the principal found unsuitable for a woman, so the brand new teacher filed a union grievance her first year on the job. It was a risky move, but the union prevailed and Davis spent the next 44 years teaching.
The longtime educator now heads WTU, representing thousands of inner-city public school teachers, and worries that fellow public employees won’t have the same pay and protection she was afforded.
Supreme Court case
The United States Supreme Court will soon decide the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association (CTA) case, after hearing oral arguments in January.
At issue is big labor’s funding and influence, secured through mandatory union dues.
Rebecca Friedrichs challenged California’s law which allows labor unions to mandate payments from non-union members, since all educators receive union representation in the event of a labor dispute and enjoy the benefits of union-negotiated contracts, which customarily include higher-than-average salary and benefits.
Some states allow mandatory dues, some don’t.
Where dues are mandatory, full members pay 100% dues while non-members may be forced to pay 85%. Unions can’t spend the regular dues on explicitly political activities, generally in support of Democrats, so that’s where the remaining 15% comes into play.
In California, Friedrichs argued that being forced to give any portion of her paycheck to an organization whose politics she opposes is tantamount to an unconstitutional violation of her First Amendment right to free speech.
As a young professional, Dr. Marco Clark recalls, “I asked the question of how I could remove myself from union dues, because as a first or second year teacher to have $50 or $100 taken out of your check is money that you could be saving toward a car or a new home.”
Dr. Clark, an African-American educator who founded DC’s Richard Wright Public Charter School after spending 15+ years in traditional public schools, advocates for more choice and transparency in the system.
Although the union spans the education system, Clark says most teachers “never utilize it” and queried, “Where does the money go?”
Therein lies the legal issue.
Gerard Robinson, former commissioner of Florida’s education system, calls the act of extracting union dues by force old fashioned “coercion.”
“It shouldn’t be union versus non-union. It should be liberty versus non-liberty, and what role should we do to empower people to take more control over their money, their intellectual capital and their ability to help their family?” asks Robinson, from the American Enterprise Institute where he’s now a resident fellow specializing in education.
Like Davis, Robinson takes the unionization issue personally.
Robinson is a black man who grew up in Los Angeles, son of a lifelong union member, father of two, former principal, and outspoken champion of union choice.
If the Supreme Court decides against the California union, Robinson says the future will be brighter for teachers and students.
“Number one, it’s going to allow teachers to decide how to invest their money in political speech that they think matches or aligns with their preference” and “get the government out of coercing to have to pay into a system where they may have disagreement,” argues Robinson.
His answer points to the larger question looming over the case. Both sides know the high court could hand down a game-changer against unions, as experts suggest they initially hinted at during oral arguments.
The decision could very well apply to teachers unions outside of California — possibly all public employee unions, in a broad ruling.
If that’s the case, we’re talking about huge numbers.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports:
- 7.2 million public employees unionized
- 35.2% of public-sector workers are union; five times higher than private-sector (6.7%)
- Black workers most likely to be union members
- Average weekly earnings
- Non-union $776
- Union $980
Chipping away at this type of economic security for minority and middle-class workers is the goal of an ultra-wealthy elite with “truckloads of money,” says WTU’s Davis
“We have the 1% and the 99%. So when you really think about it, unions really represent the 99%, the majority of people in this country. And if we say that they’re not worthy of having fair working conditions and rights, what are we saying about our own country?” demands Davis.
Touching on the intersection of education and equality, Davis paused for a breath and collected herself, deciding to connect the dots for people who haven’t trudged through the same trails that she blazed.
Recalling the past
For Davis, Friedrichs feels the same as Brown v. Board of Education, which allowed her and other black children to walk through the same doors and sit in the same seats as white students. Many of those little black and brown faces, says Davis, eventually stood at the front of classrooms teaching the next generation of learners thanks to that landmark ruling.
And as today’s eight justices deliberate, the proud union member urges them to consider the spirit of Brown.
“I’m hoping that the Supreme Court justices who hear the Friedrichs case are going to be as sensitive; I hope they’re going to represent the massive number of people in this country who have been historically misrepresented, underrepresented, [and ] under-served,” concluded Davis.
Following the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the court could decide to postpone a decision or rehear the case once it is fully restored to nine justices.
If the high court proceeds as planned, a ruling should be handed down by June 2016.
Follow Chance Seales on Twitter: @ChanceSeales