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The Supreme Court hears oral arguments for a case that could gut public sector unions

The Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments For A Case That Could Gut Public Sector Unions

As unions go, so goes the middle class. The relationship between the two has been well documented. Unfortunately, anti-union lawmakers across the country have been fighting to erode the power of unions by advancing so-called right-to-work laws. And now, conservative activists are attempting to achieve through the Supreme Court what they haven’t been able to achieve through legislation.

Today, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a case that threatens to impose a right-to-work standard on all government employees. The case was brought by the Center for Individual Rights, a group that has received funding from Koch Brothers-linked groups, other elite conservatives, and even white supremacists. The case surrounds whether public unions’ “agency fees” or “fair share fees,” which unions charge non-members to help cover the cost of services performed for non-members, violate the First Amendment. A decision that public unions cannot require fair share fees would overturn a previous unanimous Supreme Court decision in Abood v. Detroit, which has been the law of the land for over forty years. For more details about Friedrichs read here.

Today’s oral arguments were not as positive as many had hoped. Before the arguments, Justice Kennedy, who often serves as the court’s swing justice, seemed likely to come down in favor of unions. But today, Justice Kennedy did not seem as sympathetic. And Justice Scalia, who had previously hinted that the legal argument against a fair share goes too far, compared fair share agreements to a law compelling people to subsidize a political party. Despite Justices Kennedy and Scalia’s critiques during today’s oral arguments, overturning a 9-0 precedent and gutting public-sector unions would be a radical move by the Supreme Court that would have a devastating impact on workers’ ability to bargain.

Oral arguments, however, do not always predict the outcome of the case (see: the Affordable Care Act). And the Supreme Court has been known to consider the impacts on everyday Americans when deciding their cases (see: also the Affordable Care Act). The real-world impacts of this case are substantial. Dozens of workers shared their stories about the power of unions. Here are just a few from with America Works Together campaign:

  • Stephen Mittons, child protective investigator: “Our union is at the forefront of fighting for more resources for the department in the wake of budget cuts and ensuring that caseloads meet state and federal standards. By working to make our department stronger, the union provides us with the tools to do our jobs more effectively and protect more children and families.”
  • Pankaj Sharma, high school teacher: “I want students to be in classes of a decent size, so teachers can connect with them and make sure they are connecting with the material. I also want to make sure that I have the ability to go to classes and trainings so I can stay up-to-date with the best practices of teaching today… That’s why unions are so important. They give working people the opportunity to speak in one loud voice and create those conditions.”
  • David Orr, patrol supervisor: “With the help of my union, I’ve been able to raise awareness about the importance of including PTSD in worker’s compensation policies to make sure that the dangers officers face – both physically and mentally – are covered.”
  • Karen Williams, water quality analyst: “Reducing pollution and improving our public bodies of water benefits the whole community, and provides places where children can learn to swim and families can spend a weekend… But this job requires high standards of training and education, and that is what makes my union so important, and being a member of AFSCME means that I can focus on doing my job and know that the union is negotiating on my behalf for the important trainings, safety measures, and good wages and benefits that help attract a highly skilled workforce.”

Imposing a right-to-work standard for all public employees, which is essentially what’s at stake in Friedrichs, would inhibit workers from collectively bargaining for better wages, benefits, and protections, and threatens to undermine economic security for middle-class Americans. The average worker in a right-to-work state makes about $1,560 less annually than the average worker in a state without such a law. The rate of employer-sponsored health insurance is 2.6 percentage points lower in right-to-work states, and the rate of employer-sponsored pensions is 4.8 percentage points lower. That means all workers, not just government workers, would suffer if a right-to-work standard were imposed over all public employees.

BOTTOM LINE: We know that one of the best ways to raise wages for middle-class workers is through strong unions. Unfortunately, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association threatens to take away public-sector employees’ rights to work together for better wages and benefits. Hopefully the Supreme Court will recognize that undermining public-sector unions would make it even harder for all workers to get ahead.

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