Union officials haven’t found a very receptive audience for their warnings of a doomsday scenario in a legal case about making teachers pay dues in order to keep their jobs. The case is called Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association and it is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, which has scheduled oral arguments next week.
According to America Works Together — a coalition formed in September by the nation’s largest public sector unions — the case is an “attack from wealthy special interests,” intended to “make it even harder for people to come together, speak up, and get ahead.”
But after spending more than a month of work by professional labor organizers asking workers to sign a petition opposing the “attack,” unions with a combined membership of more than 7 million have collected just 100,000 signatures.
Even if more had signed, though, it may not be a valid indicator of support for the union position in the Friedrichs case. That’s because the issues there are completely different from the items in the petition’s text.
“Sign this petition and join us as we tell the Center for Individual Rights that we will not let corporate CEOs and the wealthy special interests stop us from banding together and forming unions to make our lives better,” a web version of the petition created by the American Federation of Teachers implores.
In a video recorded for America Works Together, Richard Trumka asked AFL-CIO’s 12.4 million members to “stand up for our working families” against “billionaires and wealthy CEOs like the Koch Brothers” by opposing the Friedrichs case.
Though Charles and David Koch are not funding the Friedrichs case, they are featured villains throughout America Works Together campaign materials.
The case before the Court was brought by California teacher Rebecca Friedrichs and several colleagues. The suit claims that mandatory union fees violate her free speech rights by forcing her to support inherently political union bargaining over pay, benefits, and working conditions for public teachers. She is asking for the freedom to opt out without losing her job.
A Supreme Court win would ensure Friedrichs and other public employees can choose for themselves whether to support a labor union.
Days before oral arguments are heard at the Supreme Court, the AFT, Service Employees International Union, and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees hauled printouts of the petition signatures to offices of the Center for Individual Rights, the nonprofit legal services organization representing the plaintiffs.
The unions presented the names as evidence of widespread member opposition to the claims of the schoolteachers in the Friedrichs case. The number of signatures is roughly 1 percent of the unions' collective membership.
Alix Freeze, senior communications director for the Association of American Educators, said union leaders are looking out for themselves while claiming to speak for their members.
“This case has absolutely nothing to do with unions’ ability to organize or collectively bargain,” Freeze said. “It would simply give teachers and other public employees a choice in whether they want to support a union or not.”
“AAE was founded on that principle, that teachers should have a choice – teachers are academic professionals who should choose an organization that best aligns with their budget and their beliefs,” she added.
“There are thousands of teachers all across the country who feel strongly that Rebecca is in the right here,” Freeze said.
Freeze pointed to a 2015 National Employee Freedom Week survey in which 75 percent of union members said they believe workers should “have the right to decide, without force or penalty, whether to join or leave a labor union.”
If Friedrichs and her fellow plaintiffs win, that position would become a reality in the states where there is no right-to-work law in place to protect workers from having to pay mandatory union fees or else lose their jobs.
Oral arguments in Friedrichs v. CTA are scheduled for January 11.