Supreme Court Deadlocked on Landmark Forced-Unionism Case

Published April 13, 2016

In a tie 4–4 vote, the nation’s top court effectively ruled in favor of government unions and denied a group of California government school teachers the right to decide whether to contribute to teachers unions.

Deciding the case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association after the February 2015 death of Justice Antonin Scalia, a temporarily short-staffed U.S. Supreme Court failed to reach a majority decision. When the Court fails to reach a majority decision, the lower court’s decision is allowed to stand. In November 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled against the plaintiffs and in favor of the teachers union.

Currently, many public school teachers, such as plaintiff Rebecca Friedrichs, are required to contribute funds to a teachers union in order to teach, even if they choose not to be full members of the union.

The Teacher Trap

Larry Sands, president of the California Teacher Empowerment Network, a nonprofit organization providing information and resources for professional teachers, says teachers are trapped by an alliance between government unions and lawmakers.

“You’re forced to pay money to the unions because they say they have to represent you, because they wrote the laws which say, ‘We have to represent you,'” Sands said. “They don’t have to do anything for you, because you have to pay them.”

Except for a few rare instances, teachers are prevented from leaving the unions, Sands says.

“The only way to get completely out of it is to become a religious objector, which is a hard status to obtain,” Sands said. “You usually have to go to court. You don’t pay the union anything, but you have to pay the full amount to a mutually agreed-upon charity or you can quit your job.”

Who Decides Spending Priorities?

Terry Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights and an attorney representing Friedrichs, says all union activity is political, not just some.

“When negotiating a higher salary, unions are negotiating with local officials over the best use of tax dollars,” Pell said. “Unions are saying these tax dollars should be diverted from libraries and parks to education. People should decide for themselves whether they support the union’s diverting tax dollars away from other priorities.”

Pell says teachers do not benefit from union contract negotiations with government school officials if they do not agree with the union’s positions.

“[Union membership] is only a benefit if the individual teacher happens to agree with what’s being bargained for,” Pell said. “If he or she is opposed, it’s not a benefit for them, and they shouldn’t be forced to pay for it.”

Mary Tillotson ([email protected]) writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.