Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Supreme Court to Consider Constitutional Challenge to Fair Share

During its October 2015 term, the United States Supreme Court will address the issue of whether or not it is constitutional to require bargaining unit members of public employee unions who choose not to join the union to pay “fair share” dues.  If the Court decides that “fair share” dues are unconstitutional, such a decision could be a major blow to public sector unions.  The case before the Court is brought by a group of California teachers who contend that, by compelling them to pay “fair share” dues, the union is violating their rights to free speech.

In recent years, labor union membership has been declining in the private sector.  During this same period, public sector unions have grown tremendously.  Data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2014 indicates that 35.7% of public-sector workers are union members compared to just 6.6% in the private-sector.

The dispute in California arises over the fact that a group of public school teachers have alleged that, by compelling the payment of “fair share” dues, unions are forcing their beliefs upon those who disagree.  The premise behind the teachers’ argument is relatively clear.  The teachers have taken the position that their union advances political views and uses the funds collected from dues to support the advancement of those views.

Unions are known to be very political.  Typically, unions support the Democratic Party and its platforms and ideology.  But in this case, it doesn’t really matter which party or viewpoint the union supports.  The real issue before the Court is that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides for freedom speech, meaning that a person or persons are free to express their own views and opinions and are not compelled to support the views and opinions of others with whom they disagree.  Such expression may come in many forms, but one such form is the right to provide financial support to a group that advances a person’s own views or ideas

The plaintiffs’ contend that the Teachers’ Association, to which they are compelled to pay “fair share” dues, advances positions that the plaintiffs do not believe are in the best interests of themselves or their community.  Because the “fair share” dues are used, in part, to fund the advancement of these positions, the plaintiffs contend that this violates their First Amendment rights.

In this case, it is likely that the Court will be faced with attempting to unravel what portion of “fair share” dues are used for political activities and what portion of the dues are used for collective bargaining, contract administration and adjusting grievances.  The Court considered a similar issue in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.  In Abood, the Court did not prohibit the collection of “fair share” dues, but instead ordered that the dues collected from those who object to the expression of certain union views should not be used for the advancement of such views. The Abood Court stopped short of drawing a line which would delineate how dues are to be separated.   It is likely that the California teachers will argue that it is impossible to determine if some portion of their money is being used to advance the union’s political ideology and that the very existence of the union advances the union ideology and therefore, any money given in support of the union advances union objectives and ideas.  

The Court will certainly be faced with a difficult task in this case.  While we will have wait and see what happens, a decision that eliminates “fair share” contributions would likely weaken the influence of public labor unions in Illinois.