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Unions discuss possible implications of Supreme Court case on fair share fees

Posted 8 years 184 days ago ago by   

Sacramento Bee

Jan. 13, 2016


State and local public union officials plowed through a 100-page U.S. Supreme Court transcript on Monday, trying to divine how the nine justices are leaning in a case with the potential to tie a knot in the pipeline of money that feeds their treasuries.

While the outcome of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association could end compulsory payments to government unions, maintain the status quo or fall somewhere in between, the labor leaders interviewed by The Sacramento Bee remained optimistic regardless of the outcome that their associations would adapt.

“We’ll continue to exist,” said Dave Low, executive director of the California School Employees Association, “but it would weaken us.”

Bruce Blanning, the long-time executive director of Professional Engineers in California Government, said that the union for several years did not require a fair-share fee to non-members even though state law allows it. Eventually the union’s board decided to charge the fee because it thought that non-members who benefited from representation should pay their part, he said.

If Friedrichs ends mandated payments to unions, Blanning said, it would merely turn back the clock on his association.

“In the case of PECG, or any organization, this decision could impact revenue,” Blanning said, “but we’ve been without fair share fees in the past.”

The high court on Monday heard debate over Friedrichs, which challenges a fee CTA charges non-members for “non-political” activities such a collective bargaining. The appellants claim everything a government union does is political, so the fees violate employees’ constitutional free speech protections. They also claim that requiring annual opt-out from paying full dues instead of opting in also violates the Constitution.

If people decide not to pay for union representation, should they be represented at all?

Bruce Blanning, executive director of Professional Engineers in California Government

CTA counters that the overwhelming weight of legal precedent for the fees is embodied in a 1977 U.S. Supreme Court ruling and subsequent decisions. Overturning fair-share fees, the union says, also would devastate unions legally required to still represent non-paying workers, curtail fees collected by other entities such a bar associations and encourage “free riders” who benefit from union services without paying for them.

The court’s ruling, expected a few months from now, could maintain the status quo, overturn the compulsory fees or land somewhere between. Labor leaders interviewed by The Bee agreed with many legal observers that Friedrichs could go beyond the fees that CTA collects to their own revenues and diminish their treasuries.

Perhaps nowhere would the legal ripple be felt more than in California, which has 1.3 million unionized government employees –more than any other state, according to unionstats.com.

“Friedrichs means a lot to us,” Low said, “because the implications are really tremendous. And not just for our union, but for unions through the United States.”

If the court upends fair-share fees, Blanning said, it could spark another debate over whether government unions must continue to represent all employees or be allowed to restrict services to paying members. Under that scenario, employees outside the unions would not receive, for example, negotiated pay raises or union representation in disciplinary matters.

“The next question,” Blanning said, “is if people decide not to pay for union representation, should they be represented at all?”