Written by: Dave Reid
Primary Source: Green & Write, January 18, 2016
Last week the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association (CTA). The case is examining whether public employee unions are authorized to collect fees from non-members for collective bargaining purposes. The case is contesting a 1977 Supreme Court ruling that legislated public employees can be required to pay fees (even if they are not members of a union) in order to receive the benefits all employees receive from collective bargaining (i.e. the benefits of the union negotiating fair salaries and better working conditions for all teachers). In California, for example, teachers are required to pay $650 per year for collective bargaining and an additional $350 for the union’s political spending and lobbying. Currently, teachers in California who are not in the teacher union can request not to contribute the $350 and will receive a refund. However, they must pay the $650 annually – for now.
The Two Sides of the Argument
Teachers who side with the plaintiffs in this case argue they do not want to pay money to support the union’s views and ideas, especially when they do not agree with them. These teachers describe their union as a political group that represents ideological viewpoints not in agreement with all teachers and therefore they should not be required to contribute money to the unions.
Supporters of teacher unions and those who side with the CTA in this case argue even if teachers in the union disagree with the union’s views and ideas, the money non-members contribute helps them negotiate better salaries, teacher contracts, and benefits and their fees are not solely used to push the union’s political agenda.
What’s at Stake?
As it stands, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court seems to agree with the plaintiffs. These justices believe it is unconstitutional to force teachers to pay for union activities they do not support. The divide between the judges seems to be along party lines, as the four Democratic justices believe the 1977 ruling should not be overturned and all teachers should have to continue to pay for collective bargaining.
If the 1977 ruling is overturned, union supporters are concerned they will lose power and strength, which will ultimately hurt all teachers because the union will have less money and influence to fight for better pay, smaller classrooms, and fair teacher evaluations.
Do Teacher Unions Support Teacher Quality?
There has been much research that looks at if teacher unions (and specifically collective bargaining) supports teacher quality and ultimately benefits students in our schools (see here and here). More recently, researchers have begun to ask how teachers’ unions influence educational policy.
Advocates of teacher unions argue greater resources (i.e. money) provide them the ability to negotiate better teacher salaries, benefits, and working conditions, which ultimately help attract and retain high quality teachers.
Critics of teacher unions argue that the current system makes it difficult to reform broken parts of the education system, including firing bad teachers, paying teacher based on a single salary scale, and giving less experienced teachers the most difficult teaching assignments.
The ultimate decision of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association will have dramatic ramifications. If the court rules in favor of non-union members, teacher unions will undoubtedly suffer in terms of financial resources, which has the potential to impact their influence in a number of areas, both politically and non-politically.
Teacher unions play an important role of protecting the rights of teachers. For example, teachers should have some protection from a principal or district that wishes to remove them for arbitrary and irrational reasons. However, teacher union supporters should understand that parts of our current education system are in need of reform (i.e. keeping teachers based on effectiveness, not seniority and taking more immediate action to dismiss teachers that are not effective).
All involved in this debate must remember who our nation’s education system is supposed to serve – children. Both union supporters and non-union supporters must be willing to come to an agreement that is in the best interest of our nation’s students.
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