News Story

This Supreme Court Case Could Forever Change Government Unions

Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association

The U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments today on a case that could end mandatory union dues and fees for public sector workers, which are currently required in about half the states in the country.

The case is Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, and involves whether requiring teachers and other government employees to pay union dues or fees violates their right to free speech. Rebecca Friedrichs and her fellow plaintiffs are California teachers who have been forced by law to pay a union as a condition of their employment in a public school.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs are expected to emphasize that when the employer is a government entity, collective bargaining becomes an inherently political act, and cannot be funded with coerced union dues without violating workers’ free speech rights.

Because public employee unions collectively bargain with governments over taxpayer money, public workers, and public services, they are inherently political organizations and are engaging in political speech, the plaintiffs assert. For this reason, forcing employees to pay for such speech violates their rights.

Attorneys for the unions defend mandatory dues on the grounds of contributing to labor peace. They insist that the government’s interests as an employer outweigh any First Amendment concerns from workers who disagree with union negotiating demands or tactics.

In recent weeks, union officials have organized a public-relations campaign to portray the case as an attack waged by shadowy CEOs who want to limit workers’ ability to unionize.

But the plaintiffs aren’t asking the Court to make it more difficult for anyone to form, join, or collectively bargain through a union. The case is about giving every worker a choice, Mackinac Center labor policy director Vinnie Vernuccio said.

“For unions themselves, this is not a huge deal,” Vernuccio said.

“We’re talking about workers in roughly half the states in the country getting the same rights as workers in the other half,” he said. “Of those workers, about 20 percent are likely to exercise those rights.”

Vernuccio agrees with the Friedrichs plaintiffs that collective bargaining by public employee unions is inherently political. Taxpayer resources are finite and any debate over their use amounts to politics workers should not be required to support, he said.

“From a public policy standpoint, do you do merit pay? Pay based on seniority? All those are political questions when it comes to the public sector,” he said.

Vernuccio emphasized that a victory for Friedrichs would not restrict unions’ ability to negotiate over pay, benefits, or working conditions. It would simply let public employees choose whether to financially support the union’s positions. He believes this could give public employee unions an incentive to be more responsive to their members. A ruling for the plaintiffs “isn’t going to be a huge death knell to the unions like they’re trying to make it out to be,” Vernuccio concluded.

Friedrichs and two of her co-plaintiffs explained their position in a recent video.

Public employee unions have a legal precedent on their side with the Court’s 1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. Based heavily on the rationale of labor peace, the Abood decision permits public employee unions to collect mandatory fees in most states that do not have right-to-work laws.

A decision is expected in June. The Court could reverse the Abood, or it could allow unions to continue requiring workers to pay for collective bargaining costs but simplify the process for workers who want to opt out of fees that pay for other union activities.

For more details about Friedrichs v. CTA, visit

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.