The Supreme Court is set to decide the fate of public sector unions in its case this year, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. The question in the case is whether or not the speech that the unions engage in during collective bargaining is “political”. Unions such as the CTA charge non-union members a fee for collective bargaining; a fee that is not used for political ads and is consequently a smaller fee than the one union members pay. Several teachers in California have argued that the act of bargaining is inherently political and therefore they shouldn’t have to pay this fee.
Without these funds, unions would lose an incredible amount of money and could potentially be defunct. If there is a way for many teachers to opt out of the payments, surely many of them will, and that in an of itself can harm the rest of the teachers either through union fee increases or a loss of collective bargaining. A loss of collective bargaining could cause widespread ramifications and could harm all teachers. Pensions, salaries, benefits, any and all of these could be on the line if unions are rendered defunct.
Unions have been a staple of public service unions for quite some time bargaining for benefits, salary and pensions; keeping the field alive and thriving. To cut the legs out from underneath them as the Court looks very poised to do, would harm thousands if not millions of workers across the United States. As someone who is interested in being a teacher in California, this is a particularly dismaying development. It causes me to worry about the quality of life and career that I will have. Will it be the same as my mother’s? Worse? I don’t know.
The Court has hinted that this is the way that they will be going for some time, but to fully cripple unions and undo precedent should be done only with a heavy heart or due to some great external change in the nation. For example, Brown v. Board of Education overturned the separate but equal doctrine enshrines in Plessy v Ferguson because segregation had become constitutionally and morally untenable. So the question is: have unions becomes out of step with American life and needs that it should be rendered obsolete? With vast income inequality, an all out assault on teachers and an American education system in need of greater funding and support, it feels very much like unions are much needed in American life. I would argue in fact that in times such as these, unionization should increase response to the vast income inequality to give workers the much needed support and a platform from which to speak out.
The fate of unions most likely lie in the hands of Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy. Both men were appointed by Republicans (George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan respectively) but at times have tacked to the center. It is time again for one of them—if not both— to stand up to the conservative forces on the Court and give unions a lifeline.