— by Stuart Appelbaum, President of the Jewish Labor Committee
The right to form and join unions in both the public and private sectors is critically important to working men and women in the United States, giving them a voice in economic and political spheres. Unions help to build and sustain a strong middle class and mitigate income inequality, which can destabilize our society. In the public sector, however, the future of unions is being threatened in a case recently argued before the United States Supreme Court.
The case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, involves the issue of “fair share fees” for nonunion members in public sector jobs. Public sector unions help to ensure decent pay, fair working conditions, and a range of benefits for public employees, such as teachers, firefighters, social workers, police and others. Where there is union representation in a public or private sector workplace, the union is legally obligated to negotiate on behalf of all employees, including the nonunion workers. Because these workers benefit from union representation, they should pay their fair share for the union’s work on their behalf; otherwise, they are getting a free ride by reaping the benefits paid for by others. In Friedrichs, the practice of imposing fair share fees for public sector unions is being challenged.
In the 1977 case of Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that it is constitutional for public sector unions to collect fair share fees from those employees who choose not to join a union, but are still legally required to be represented by that union. These fees are to reflect only the costs involved in negotiating for “bread and butter issues,” not political activities. The Supreme Court decision in Friedrichs, which is expected in June, could change that 1977 ruling.
If the Supreme Court overturns Abood, the impact of this decision would extend beyond public school teachers in California to all public employees throughout the country. Without the fair share fee, public sector unions would have fewer resources to handle negotiations and grievances. The result would be to adversely affect all employees in public sector workplaces with union members. Union resources would be further reduced as public employees decide to forego union membership in an attempt to gain the benefits of union services without paying their fair share of the costs. Removing the fair share fee requirement may also impede state and local governments’ ability to recruit and maintain highly skilled employees: if public sector workers earn less and have more precarious work situations than their private sector counterparts, more people will be inclined to work in the private sector.
The Jewish Labor Committee stands with public sector unions and with the decision of Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. We view the Friedrichs case as the most recent manifestation of an ongoing multifaceted campaign to reverse over a century’s worth of hard-won gains by American workers to have strong unions defending their interests in the public as well as the private sectors of our society. The Jewish Labor Committee is firmly opposed to this most recent attack on unions and on workers’ rights.