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Richard Kahlenberg: Defunding Public Unions Hurts Our Democracy

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This week, the Supreme Court will hear a case called Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association. The plaintiffs represent teachers who not want to pay union dues. They say that the requirement to pay dues violates their free speech rights. Friedrichs is backed by political, financial, and ideological groups who hope to cripple the last bastion of organized labor. If the plaintiffs win, labor’s resources and political clout will be severely reduced. This case will be a milestone in the survival or destruction of public sector unions.


In the article linked above, Richard Kahlenberg argues that diminishing the power of public sector unions diminishes our democracy. In our society, money buys political influence and voice. If labor’s voice is stilled, only the rich will have political power. There will be no organized countervailing voice to prevent them from controlling everything.


Friedrichs is a teacher who objects to paying dues to the CTA. However, she is not required to pay for political activities, because of an earlier Supreme Court decision called Abood.


The current legal framework in which courts weigh cases such as Friedrichs is narrowly constrained, balancing the free speech rights of dissenting union members against the state’s interests in promoting stable labor relations with its public employees.
In the 1977 case of Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court reached a sensible compromise that properly balanced these two sets of interests by splitting union dues into two categories: those that support political speech, and those that support bread–and-butter collective bargaining. Because the First Amendment’s free speech clause provides a right to not be compelled by the state to subsidize speech with which one disagrees, dissenting public employees cannot be required by the state to join a union, or to subsidize the union’s political and lobbying efforts to promote certain positions of public concern….


According to the counsel for Friedrichs, annual dues to the CTA amount to approximately $1,000 per teacher, of which nonmembers receive a refund of roughly $350 to $400 for expenses unrelated to collective bargaining. In other words, Friedrichs is happy to accept increases in wages and benefits the union negotiates hard to win, but does not want to pay the $600 to $650 per year that other members contribute in order to make those wage gains possible. Will she give back her raises, forgo health care benefits, give up the right to pursue grievances, and agree to teach larger classes that the union negotiated? The amicus brief of the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors put it well: there is no “constitutional right to a free ride.”


Kahlenberg notes:


All unions—including, and perhaps especially, public sector unions—also contribute to one of the most important foundational interests of the state: democracy. And they do this in many different ways. Unions are critical civic organizations that serve as a check on government power. They are important players in promoting a strong middle class, upon which democracy depends. They serve as schools of democracy for workers. And teacher unions, in particular, help ensure that our educational system is sufficiently funded to teach children to become thoughtful and enlightened citizens in our self-governing democracy….


Strong unions helped build the middle class in America after the Great Depression, and continue to have a positive effect on ameliorating extreme inequalities of wealth. By bargaining for fair wages and benefits, unions in the public and private sector help foster broadly shared prosperity. Research finds, for example, that unions compress wage differences between management and labor. According to one study, “controlling for variation in human resource practices, unionized establishments have an average of 23.2 percentage point lower management-to-worker pay ratio relative to non-union workplaces.”


Kahlenberg documents that the decline in union membership parallels the decline in the middle class.  Extremes of wealth and poverty are not good for democracy.


This is an excellent overview of the potential damage that this Supreme Court decision might do to unions and to democracy. It occurs to me as I read it that the contentious battle over school choice, funded amply by billionaires, is intended to divert attention from crucial economic issues. Billionaires would have us believe that they are advancing the economic opportunities for black and Hispanic children even as they use their political clout to destroy the jobs and economic security of their families, as well as the economic prospects for the “scholars” in their charter schools.



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