When the Supreme Court agreed to hear Frederich v. California Teachers Association, on appeal from the Ninth Circuit, I knew immediately that teacher’s unions would come under fire by the media and other political pundits who have, so often, found disdain for the role of public sector unions in the workplace. The Court heard arguments in the case yesterday and we can expect the Court to provide its decision by the end of June, when it ends its annual session.
At stake is the ability for a union to prevent the free rider problem. The free rider problem occurs when non union members, who do not pay membership fees/dues, receive the same benefits/incentives as union members. Because teacher’s unions work to improve working conditions for all teachers, not just their members, it is plausible that teachers in Washington would seek to change their status as union members to agency fee payers. Being an agency fee payer means that the teacher pays a fee to the local union for the union to negotiate the local collective bargaining agreement (CBA) from which the agency fee payer, a non member, also benefits. If the Court strikes down the right of a union to collect agency fees for the work that the union does for the benefit of all of teachers, not just members, non members are able to “ride for free” on the coattails of union members. Frederich asserts that all union work is political and that her union advocates for issues/areas that she disagrees with, asserting that the union leverages increased salaries against classroom size (see the article from NPR on January 11, 2016). Although the state of California has come down on the side of the California Teachers Association, recognizing them as a bargaining agent for the 325,000 certificated employees in the state, the role of public sector unions is now in the balance if the Supreme Court sides with Frederich.
I’ve been the co-president of my local association for the past nine years. I’ve bargained three contracts, soon to bargain my fourth, and I’ve had the pleasure of working to improve the conditions for the teachers in my district. Over the past three contracts, our teachers have earned access to fifteen days of extra pay for the work that they do outside of contract hours. Our teachers have seen increased dollars allocated towards skyrocketing health care costs and more money placed into their professional development, so that they may seek further education that benefits their students. Because of our union’s work, our school district pays all of the fees associated with National Board Certification and has worked with our district to establish an OSPI approved cohort. We have worked to advocate for smaller classroom sizes, increased stipends, and more paraeducators for our students and our teachers. All teachers, regardless of whether they are members or agency fee payers benefit. Most of the work that I do as co-president benefits all teachers, not just our members. In addition, our union benefits our school community. We provide three scholarships to graduating high school students, regardless of whether the student’s parent is an affiliated member with the union. For our members, we provide three scholarships to teachers who want to further their education. We work to be good stewards of fees, returning them to our members in the form of classroom grants for supplies and materials that go directly in the hands of the students. If Frederich wins, fewer teachers will likely join the union and since the union cannot collect agency fees, fewer funds will be available to support the work of the union. Teachers who have been outliers to union activity will not have to support the work of the union to negotiate the contract and advocate for student and teacher needs.
I am proud of the union work that I do and of my union here in Washington. We work hard to advocate for student needs which includes providing them with the best quality education possible. I shudder to think what the state legislature, which has just recently come back into session, thinks is the best quality education. Frederich has serious ramifications nationwide but let us not look past the potential consequences in our state. With our legislature in contempt of the Supreme Court, now is the time for more advocacy at the state level, not less. Teachers need their union to serve as one united voice to speak for our practice. Our union advocates for our students by supporting reduced class sizes, reducing testing mandates, and bringing awareness to the social justice issues that our students face. The Court’s decision will surely impact the work of our local and state union to do the advocacy work that our students and teachers need them to do.