Friedrichs Case Petitioners: For Want of a Justice

'I became disenchanted with the teachers union'

Karen Cuen is a plantiff in a U.S. Supreme Court case involving mandatory union fees.

Karen Cuen has more than a casual interest in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in January. She is one of the parties to a case whose future course became unclear following the Feb. 13 death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

Cuen is a music, band, and choir teacher who has taught elementary school students in Chino Valley, California, for over 20 years. She does not feel that the teachers union represents her best interests, and she is not a member. But since California is not a right-to-work state, she is required to pay fees to the union.

If Cuen and the other petitioners in Friedrichs prevail, they will be able to opt out of paying the CTA and its local affiliates.

“I became disenchanted with the teachers union when I realized they were not about what's best for kids and public education,” Cuen said. “I realized they were about politics and protecting their own, even if ‘their own’ were poor teachers who should not be in the classroom.”

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The union representation fees Cuen must pay as a nonmember are spent on politics, she said, including union negotiations for policies such as pay increases that reward longevity with no regard for effectiveness.

She disagrees with many of these positions but is forced to pay for them to keep her job.

“When budgets are tight and teachers must be laid off, the newest teachers are the first to go,” she said, explaining last-in, first-out, a practice demanded by the CTA and other unions. “This policy has become the status quo and it is not good for students.”

“New teachers are often some of the most excited. They come up with new ideas and great teaching strategies. Letting these kinds of teachers go is just bad business,” Cuen said.

The teachers who brought the case to the Supreme Court argue that mandatory union fees in the public sector violate the First Amendment rights of nonmembers since public employee unions engage in politically charged negotiations over taxpayer resources, public services, and government workers.

What would happen were the court to rule for Cuen?

“A favorable ruling would mean that after 20-plus years as an agency fee payer, I would finally stop having money taken out of my paycheck without my consent,” she said.

“It would mean that if teachers unions want their members’ money, they’d better come up with an attractive, responsible, user-friendly organization that listens to its members and provides services that are focused on working conditions for its members, not politics and social issues.”

Arguing against Cuen and her fellow petitioners, union lawyers warn that ending mandatory fees in the public sector would upset labor peace, harming workers by weakening unions.

Cuen disagrees, saying public employee unions could become stronger, not weaker.

If the CTA and other teachers unions had to earn members’ dues, “union members would actually want to be members and would be glad to be associated with the union,” Cuen said. “How is this a bad thing?”

During oral arguments on Jan 11., a majority of Supreme Court justices seemed sympathetic to the position advanced by attorneys representing Cuen and the other teachers. Counsel for the petitioners has asked the court to rehear the case after a replacement for Scalia is confirmed.

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