At a time of growing employee discontent with labor leaders, the Supreme Court heard arguments on Monday in a case that could undermine the ability of government unions to collect fees from workers. The case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, was brought by ten Golden State teachers who object to a law requiring them to pay fees to a union, even though they have declined to join it. The plaintiffs argue that such payments from nonmembers, known as agency fees, are unconstitutional, because the union uses them to underwrite political causes that the teachers don’t support. In recent years, the Court has signaled growing impatience with the way government unions spend monies collected from workers; on Monday, the justices’ questions suggested that a majority may be ready to declare agency fees unconstitutional.
Friedrichs represents perhaps the biggest threat government unions have faced in decades—and not merely because some workers object to the unions’ increasingly left-leaning politics. The larger problem that unions face is one of customer satisfaction: union dues in the government sector have soared and now take a significant bite out of worker paychecks. Union members increasingly question whether they’re getting their money’s worth. “The elephant in the room is that plenty of represented workers aren’t enthusiastic about their unions,” a writer for Labor Notes, a union publication, observed last June when the court agreed to hear Friedrichs. Some members, the publication noted, gripe “that their unions focus on advocating for causes far removed from members’ day-to-day work.”
Surveys back up these sentiments and should trouble any union leaders contemplating life after forced agency fees. Only 47 percent of government-union members said that they approved of the job their union leaders were doing in a 2010 survey by the National Right to Work Foundation; 48 percent said that belonging to a union had either had no impact on their career or had actually hurt it. Fifty-nine percent said that union dues were too high, and 58 percent said that union leaders were overpaid. Perhaps not surprisingly, a recent poll by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance found that only 38 percent of teachers support compulsory agency fees, compared with 50 percent who oppose them.
Teachers pay an especially steep price to their unions. In California, according to documents in the Friedrichs case, CTA’s dues for teachers average about $1,000 a year. The agency fee that nonmembers must pay, ostensibly for the benefits that unionization creates for all workers, cost about $650. In New York, the United Federation of Teachers, which represents 200,000 education workers in city public schools, charges teachers $108.34 a month, or $1,300.08 a year. Other UFT members, like guidance counselors and school social workers, pay even more. This burden is especially high for newer members, because unions don’t believe in progressive taxation when it comes to dues: new employees earning an entry-level salary pay the same as the most experienced teachers.
Even as union dues have spiked, government labor leaders have pushed their organizations increasingly into political activism that has little to do with representing workers. Though the CTA says that nearly two-thirds of the money it collects in dues gets spent on worker issues, lawyers for the Friedrichs plaintiffs say that the union deemed spending on events like a conference on gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender concerns as part of worker representation and included it in the expenses used to calculate agency fees. The union also included in the price much of the cost of publishing an in-house magazine that relies heavily on writing about political matters. Similarly, the National Education Association, the umbrella organization that receives some of the money sent by teachers to the CTA, has spent millions on grants and contracts with left-leaning groups—including the Daily Kos and Marylanders for Marriage Equality—not involved with workers’ rights or education.
Even union leaders acknowledge that they may have drifted too far from representing workers. In a strategic document designed to prepare its locals for life after agency fees, the NEA describes how it has created a Center for Organizing to encourage local affiliates to reinvigorate their worker outreach. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has created a campaign to tout the benefits of belonging to a union. AFSCME is running recommitment drives to get current members to pledge to remain part of the union, even if the court abolishes agency fees.
Government unions may face an uphill battle, however. A 2012 study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that forced agency fees were a key part of union strength. Eighteen of the 20 unions the study judged as the nation’s strongest were in states that compelled nonmembers to pay the fees. Stanford political scientist Terry Moe estimates that 90 percent of teachers in agency-fee states belonged to unions. In states that didn’t compel the fees, union participation drops below 70 percent.
Losing both nonmember fees and a significant part of their membership dues would severely curtail government unions’ resources. It might also alter America’s political landscape. The NEA was the third-highest donor to candidates in the 2014 federal election cycle, and since 1990, it has given 96 percent of its money to Democratic candidates. The American Federation of Teachers was seventh among donors in 2014; since 1990, it has given 97 percent of its contributions to Democrats. AFSCME contributed just 1 percent of the money it spends on political campaigns to Republicans over that period. Though government workers as a group tend to lean more to the left than most Americans, even they are not as monolithically Democratic as their leaders. In the National Right to Work Foundation poll, 36 percent of government union members said that they planned to vote Republican in upcoming elections.
Government unions have benefitted enormously from forced dues and agency fees. But laws compelling workers to pay for something that they didn’t want have also led union leaders to take their workers for granted—and now the unions may pay a price.