Attorney: high court ruling could hurt all workers, union and non-union

WASHINGTON (PAI) – A potential negative ruling in a pending U.S. Supreme Court case involving public workers and their unions could hurt all workers nationwide in their fight for their rights and decency on the job, a top public workers’ union attorney warns.

“This case should be seen for what it is: it would place substantial limitations on the ability of working people to advocate for themselves,” Service Employees Associate General Counsel Maryann Parker says.

Parker was referring to the case of Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association et al, which the Supreme Court will consider on Jan. 11. A final ruling is not expected before June.

Technically, Friedrichs pits nine anti-union teachers against the two teachers unions in California who represent them and against the state. The issue is whether states can order anti-union workers – whom, however, the union represents-to pay “agency fees” to cover costs of contract bargaining and administration, such as defending grievances.

The nine say such orders and laws violate their free speech rights by forcing them to support union political positions. But in reality, speakers at the Jan. 6 American Constitution Society panel said, Friedrichs is part of a broader movement to strip all workers of their rights.

The nine dissidents lostin lower courts, but took their case to the High Court at the outright invitation in a prior court ruling by Associate Justice Samuel Alito. Alito has questioned whether any public worker unions have the right to require non-members to pay agency fees.

If he wins now, there would be wide ramifications for all workers, public and private, union and non-union, Parker said.

Alito suggested, and the nine (paid for and represented by the right-wing, so-called National Right to Work Committee and its legal defense fund) agreed, that anything a public worker union does is political, and thus could violate the individual workers’ free speech rights.

“In partnership with public sector employers” – meaning state and local governments – public sector unions “have helped to decrease costs, increase efficiencyand increase quality,” Parker explained.

“It’s true that workers, banding together, lift all boats,” she declared. Friedrichs, she added, “is part of a muchlarger attack on the ability of working people to band together” to protect themselves and improve their standards of living.

While Parker did not say so, the attack is highly partisan, led by anti-worker right wing groups and business interests and their Republican political puppets, both in the U.S. Congress and in the states.

Their schemes include so-called right-to-work laws, destruction of public school teacher tenure – and public schools – and destroying decent wages for construction workers through bans on project labor agreements.

In one outstanding example, right wing Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wis., stripped most Wisconsin public worker unions of collective bargaining rights in 2011. The ones that kept their rights, including their right to collect union dues, were those that had backed his 2010 campaign.

His strong-arm tactics for Act 10 sent 100,000 protesters into the streets of Madison in subzero midwinter weather. But after it passed, public union density dropped sharply. A Friedrichs win for the anti-union forces would make every state and local government a “right-to-work” employer, just like Wisconsin.

Andrew Pincus, a former top Justice Department official who filed a brief in the Friedrichs case on behalf of constitutional law scholars, noted that government workers already have more-limited speech rights than private workers do.

If they speak out on matters of public concern, the Constitution’s Amendment protects them, he noted. If they’re speaking within the confines of their job, it may not.”The government can do whatever it wants” to discipline them, within limits, Pincus pointed out.

That means the nine dissident teachers could publicly oppose their unions’ positions on public issues, like other citizens. And their agency fees don’t cover those union activities, either. But unless they could prove that contract bargaining and grievance processes – defending workers – are also “political,” Pincus said, the agency fees are constitutional.

Parker and panelist Anisha Gupta, New York state’s deputy solicitor general, also stressed the practical impact of a decision for the Friedrichs dissidents. It would overturn almost 40 years of laws, precedents and cases involving public workers, following a 1976 High Court ruling in a case, Abood, involving the Detroit school board and its teachers unions.

“Where fair share fees don’t have to be paid, people don’t contribute” to the costs the union incurs to bargain for them and represent them, Gupta said.            

Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.