Teachers’ Freedom of Speech & Association on Trial at U.S. Supreme Court

Think teachers should have the right to free speech and association? It will be determined by the US Supreme Court. Nine courageous teachers are taking on the California teachers union to gain their rights to free speech and association.

On January 11th the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Friedrichs v. CTA which is a case about teachers having to pay union dues to keep their jobs.  The Alaska Policy Forum signed on to an Amicus Brief to the court.  The basis of this case is the First Amendment right to Free Speech and Association.  That is, should teachers be required to pay “agency fees” even after they opt out of the union.  For clarification, if a teacher decides to opt out of the union, that teacher is still required to pay “agency fees” to cover the cost of collective bargaining, grievances, etc.  These agency fees vary but in Alaska they are about 70% of a teacher’s dues.  Here is  what the NEA-Alaska says about its agency fees for 2015-16.

Organization                    Dues               Political Fee

  • NEA National                $185.00                           $116.53
  • NEA Alaska                     709.00                             212.70
  • AEA (ASD)                      144.00                                15.84**

TOTAL                       $1,038                         $345.07

Here is a link to the actual letter from the NEA-Alaska to its members on political portion of dues: NEA DUES 2015-16

So, in Anchorage a member of the teachers union (AEA) total dues would be $1,038, and $345.07 of that would go toward political activities and candidate support.  But an AEA member can opt out of the political fee under the U.S. Supreme Court decision (Hudson v. Chicago Teachers Union).  What gets very fuzzy is the amount of dues being used for political purposes.  Note that even though an AEA member opts out of the political fee, that member must still pay what is called the agency fee.  This is because the AEA union has “exclusive representation” in its contract which means no on else, including an individual teacher, can negotiate a contract with the school district.

Not only that, but the union member must opt out every year.  When you discontinue some of your cable TV channels, do you have to opt out each and every year?  And to make it even more difficult, the member must opt out during a very narrow window during the school year.  Sometimes this window is only 2 weeks and it changes the opt out month every year.  Try to follow the bouncing ball!  If one misses the opt out window, then too bad you pay the full amount of dues.

The crux of the Friedrichs case is that this system of mandatory agency fees violates First Amendment rights of Free Speech and Association because the opt-out members are forced to support the union even if they are not forced to be a member.  When the union negotiates for higher salaries and benefits, it is really negotiating with the local and state governments over taxpayer spending.  Contract provisions over how teachers are dismissed affect public education policy and taxpayers.  These are political choices.  The named plaintiff, Rebecca Friedrichs, said that because of tough economic times in her district, she and others favored a small pay cut so that other teachers could keep their jobs.  Unfortunately, the union pressed for the pay increase which caused several of Rebecca’s fellow teachers to be fired.

If the union is negotiating for lower class sizes, teacher raises, and teacher preparation time, then it is taking away funding from other government activities such as building roads and parks.  These positions by the union are actually political choices for limited tax dollars.  So, collective bargaining is in effect political activity which some non-member teachers may not agree with.  The agency fees of non-members pay for this political activity.  Chief Justice Roberts stated the problem before the court as: Can individuals be compelled to support political views they disagree with?

The decision on this case will have far-reaching consequences for public employee unions.  If the justices decide in favor of Friedrichs, then public employees in every state will have in effect right to work.  Then the unions will have to compete for members and actually provide a better, maybe less politically-centric, service to its members.  Whatever its outcome, we applaud Rebecca Friedrichs and the other 9 teachers for standing up for their First Amendment rights.  It takes courage and guts to put oneself out there.  Would you do the same for your fellow workers?

** This is the amount of dues ($15.84) that the AEA tells the Anchorage School District goes toward political activities, a patent falsehood.

Here are those 9 brave teachers:

friedrichs 9 plaintiffs








Link to the transcript of oral arguments: FRIEDRICHS TRANSCRIPT