WashU Expert: Supreme Court decision could challenge unions to fight for their existence

SupremeCourt600A California teachers’ union case being argued before the U.S. Supreme Court this week has American labor unions bracing for the worst. Many predict its decision this summer could cripple the ability of public sector unions to collect mandatory dues from the employees they represent under collective bargaining agreements.

While an adverse ruling for unions would certainly be bad news for organized labor, the expected setback need not be as dire as some are predicting, suggests Jake Rosenfeld, PhD, a labor union expert at Washington University in St. Louis.

“There is no sense in being Polyannish about the likely consequences of the Court’s decision this summer,” Rosenfeld writes in a post this week at the OnLabor blog.


“Many unions will be hurt, and all will have to divert resources away from ongoing campaigns to maintain dues collection. But it will prove devastating only if organized labor believes it will, and gives up on the hard work of convincing government employees of the labor movement’s value. That hard work is worthwhile regardless of whether the collection of fair share fees is allowed or not.”

The case in question, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, hinges on whether mandatory union dues are a violation of workers’ freedom of speech.

The case could overturn a 1977 Supreme Court ruling (Abood v. Detroit Board of Education) that unanimously protected the right of public workers to form unions and required those employees who refused to join the union to pay a mandatory “fair share” of monthly dues to cover the union’s cost of bargaining on their behalf.

Some have argued that the consequences of an adverse ruling for unions in the Friedrichs case would have national consequences on par with the catastrophe that befell Wisconsin public sector unions following similar changes put in place there a couple years ago.

Not necessarily so, argues Rosenfeld, associate professor of sociology in Arts & Sciences and author of “What Unions No Longer Do,” a recent book on the social and economic ramifications of America’s declining labor unions.

“Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s signature effort to cripple public sector unions represents Friedrichs on steroids — a piece of legislation that not only takes away unions’ ability to collect fair share fees but also restricts most government unions — all except those that represent police officers and firefighters — from doing many core union functions,” he explains.

While the loss of “fair share” requirements would pose a major challenge to unions, it need not be a death sentence for unions willing to rise to the challenge, Rosenfeld said.

“Here the scores of recent union-supported victories in raising minimum wages, passing paid sick leave legislation, and pressuring low-road employers such as Walmart to increase pay should prove vital,” he argues. “These wins provide clear evidence of the labor movement’s value — and of the need to maintain membership rolls to sustain momentum on behalf of American workers. In the weeks and months ahead, unions should trumpet these victories, taking Wisconsin’s state motto as their guide: ​‘Forward!’”​

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