On Tuesday, March 29, an equally divided Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s ruling in a case that posed an existential threat to public-sector unionism. As a result of the split decision, the system unions use to collect fees from workers will remain intact.
In the pivotal case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a group of California school teachers were challenging the legality of what are known as “fair share” fees.
Unions must represent all workers, even those who do not personally desire that particular form of representation, so where state law allows, workers can be required to pay fair share fees to help cover the costs of collective bargaining and funding the union in general.
The teachers involved argued that the fees violated their First Amendment rights, since, in their eyes, public-sector unionism is inherently political, and that they should not be coerced into funding an organization they did not fundamentally support.
Had the court taken this opportunity to strike down fair share fees once and for all the entire U.S. public sector would have essentially become a right-to-work zone, meaning that hundreds of thousands of public-sector workers would have then been able to opt out of funding the unions that represent them. This scenario would have dealt a crushing blow to the labor movement in general, which has been increasingly losing popularity while becoming more and more supplemented by public-sector unions in recent years.
It is highly unlikely that unions would have survived this case unscathed, or even at all, had Justice Antonin Scalia not died earlier this year, leaving behind an ideologically split court. Scalia appeared intent on overturning the decades-old precedent upholding the legality of fair share fees.
When the aggressively conservative justice died in February, it appeared increasingly likely that the court would deadlock on this monumental decision, leaving the fate of unions in the hands of the lower court.
As union membership has dropped precipitously in the last few decades, this decision comes as a sigh of relief to those particularly empathetic to the plight of the working class. As a progressively-minded individual, a registered Democrat and a member of the perpetually shrinking middle-class, I can do nothing but support the court’s decision in this case.
Without unions, we would still be working 12-hour days, seven days a week, no paid holidays, vacations, or raises and small children would be toiling away in unsafe factories alongside their parents. Unions work tirelessly to narrow the wage gap between minorities and women in comparison to their white male counterparts, and earn roughly a third more than a non-union worker in terms of weekly pay.
By allowing workers to have input in their job and decreasing overall turnover, unions can increase productivity and enhance efficiency.
The invaluable power of unions, along with a reasonable system of regulations, can be the brake we as a people desperately need against the very real dangers of unfettered capitalism. It is simply impossible, in my opinion, to advocate a position that would dismantle an institution that plays a vital role in protecting the perpetually stagnant wages of the working class in a time of unprecedented income inequality.
Labor unions do more than secure workers’ rights in a time where they are increasingly skirted in the profit-maximizing slug-fest that is modern business, they are a fundamental agency through which the common man can get his voice heard loud and clear. For a lot of folks, that is simply all they ask.
In the aftermath of the tragic Citizens United decision in 2010 and the unprecedented level at which massive corporations and interest groups can now influence and shape politics, it is impossible to understate the physiological, philosophical, and practical importance of defending one of the last vestiges of the once-stoic middle class.