Now a case awaits hearing by the U.S. Supreme Court that could dramatically change this picture. The Far Left periodical In These Times calls Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association the case “that could decimate American public sector unionism.” Perhaps that’s simply an ideological overstatement. Nonetheless, the case, if decided for the plaintiffs, could end the practice of “agency” fees—money paid to the union by nonmembers in exchange for collective bargaining services. Unions call them “fair-share” fees and assert that their elimination would create a class of free riders, workers who would pay nothing while still enjoying the higher salaries and other benefits negotiated by unions.
The stakes for teachers unions are high, as a 2011 Wisconsin law illustrates. Wisconsin Act 10, known as the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill, eliminated agency fees there and reshaped the collective bargaining process. Since the law’s passage, membership in the Wisconsin Education Association Council and the American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin has fallen by more than 50 percent, according to a 2015 report from the National Education Association (NEA). In 2014, NEA membership in agency fee states grew by 5,300. In states without agency fees, it fell by more than 47,000.
Accordingly, at a conference of the California Teachers Association (CTA), the union briefed its activists on the potential consequences should the unions lose in Friedrichs, citing loss of revenue; fewer resources; decline in membership; reduced staffing; increased pressure on the CTA pension and benefit system; and potential financial crises for some locals.