Unions must adapt after Supreme Court ruling

Unions must adapt after Supreme Court ruling

(Calif.) The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to deliver a major hit next year to the ability of public employee unions like the California Teachers Association to raise money, but that doesn’t mean unions will become obsolete, according to policy experts.

For decades, the CTA has wielded enormous influence over state politics, arbitrating budget deals, deciding the fate of political candidates, and the flow of legislation. The source of that power, however, has been in its ability to raise vast sums of money from its members, and without that resource, expectations are the CTA and other public employee unions will quickly fall to the sidelines.

But that’s just one vision of the future. Another is that they can maintain power if they can acclimate to the new restrictions expected to be placed on the collection of union dues.

“This could definitely be a significant blow to public employee unions as they’re currently constructed,” Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles, said in an interview. “In other words, they would have to potentially find a new model for bargaining and organizing to adapt to what is expected to be a pretty big decision, but one they’ve been expecting for several years.”

In anticipation of the court ruling, sympathetic lawmakers in California passed a pair of bills as part of the most recent state budget agreement that might help soften the blow.

One requires that public employers must provide union representatives with access to new employee orientations in order to allow them to recruit members. The second adds the personal email addresses of public employees to a list of privacy exemptions in the California Public Records Act. Supporters of the provision argue that those email addresses can be used in anti-union campaigns.

In the case pending before the high court–Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31–the justices will be asked to resolve whether or not public sector workers can be required to pay union dues as a condition of employment. Under the 40-year-old precedent established by the Supreme Court in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, public employees can be required to pay their share of the costs of their unions’ core activities, such as handling contract negotiations and grievances, but cannot be required to support unions’ political actions, such as lobbying for or against various bills or politicians.

Employees who object to their unions’ political activities can opt to only pay “fair share” fees, which are less than full union dues. Currently, 28 states have "right to work" laws that forbid requiring workers to join or support a union, but a decision in favor of the plaintiff in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 could have potentially drastic consequences for public-sector unions in the other 22 states, where such fees are authorized by law.

The case mirrors a suit brought last year by a California schoolteacher–Friedrichs vs. the California Teachers Association–in which the court's conservative majority appeared poised to strike down the mandated fair share fees. With the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February, however, the court was left split 4-4.

In response to the Supreme Court’s announcement that it had decided to hear Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, members and leaders of unions including the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and the CTA issued statements in opposition.

Janus v. AFSCME is a case with far sweeping implications for working families, our students and the communities we serve,” Eric Heins, president of the CTA, said in a statement. “Their goal here, as it was in Friedrichs v. CTA, is no secret: they want to use the Supreme Court to take away the freedom of working people to join together in strong unions, because unions give workers a powerful voice in speaking up for themselves, our students, families and communities.”

Sonenshein said that the court’s decision will certainly be a distraction for unions as they explore new ways to recruit members and collect the funds that have allowed those like the CTA to wield significant power in the Capitol. He noted, however, that they’ve had some time to prepare, and are unlikely to be completely hobbled by the court’s upcoming ruling.

“Some of this has already been baked in the cake,” Sonenshein said, noting that union leaders were already preparing for a loss in Friedrichs prior to the passing of Justice Scalia, which deadlocked the court. “It doesn’t mean that they have all the answers, but what it means is that there will probably be a fundamental reconsideration of how to exercise their collective power.”

Unions throughout the country have taken small, initial steps to reduce spending in preparation of the court’s decision.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association has begun reducing expenditures by proposing that the annual state convention become biennial and choosing to send fewer delegates to the annual National Education Association Representative Assembly.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association hired an accounting firm to determine a prudent level of reserves should agency fees disappear. And some of New York’s major public employee unions–the Civil Service Employees Association and the Public Employees Federation–are foregoing “get-out-the-vote” campaign organizing to focus on educating their rank-and-file about the benefits of being in a union.

The case is likely to be argued in January or February, according to SCOTUSblog.

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