by Ann C. Hodges, Professor of Law, University of Richmond School of Law
In a blog post following the Supreme Court’s decision last term in Harris v. Quinn, I predicted that the constitutionality of union fair share fees would soon be back at the Court. It took little prescience to make such a prediction and indeed, the plaintiffs in Friederichs v. California Teachers’ Association worked mightily to get the case on the Court’s docket as quickly as possible. The Court will decide whether to grant cert in the near future.
Although this issue will no doubt return repeatedly to the Court, it should decline to hear the case. The 1977 decision of the Court in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education correctly concluded that fair share fees are constitutional, and the decision should not be disturbed. Abood allows the union to charge for its mandated representational duties, but not for political expenditures. In this context, the objectors’ first amendment interests are reduced and the interests of the government employer that has entered into an agreement with the union enhanced. Justice Alito suggested in Harris, however, that all union activity in the government sector implicates the highest first amendment interests. This is at odds with the Court’s cases on the first amendment interests of public employees following Abood.
In recent years, the Court has held that the government has stronger interests in restraining speech when it acts as an employer. Accordingly, when employees speak pursuant to their job duties, their speech is unprotected. Additionally, when an employee’s speech is about an internal workplace grievance, it is similarly unprotected by the first amendment. It is precisely these grievances that the union is obliged to handle for all employees regardless of membership. If speaking about the grievance is unprotected, why is compelling the unwilling employee to pay for this otherwise unprotected speech an interference with first amendment rights? Further, Justice Alito’s Harris opinion suggests that when one employee asks for a raise, the speech is unprotected but when the union asks for a raise on behalf of all employees, it is high order political speech which the employee cannot be compelled to support. As Justice Kagan pointed out in the Harris dissent, the fact that it takes more money to pay multiple employees does not transform the character of the speech when the substance, asking for a raise, is the same.
There are many other reasons for the Court to deny cert. Abood has been settled law for almost 40 years, Justice Alito’s efforts notwithstanding. As Justice Kagan ably pointed out in Harris, principles of stare decisis, including the reliance interests of thousands of employers and unions and millions of employees, counsel restraint. Moreover, as I have argued in earlier posts, fair share agreements are an essential pillar of the system of labor relations that has served our country well for 80 years. And finally, as pointed out in the opposition to cert, the record in this case has not been developed, as the plaintiffs rushed to accept Justice Alito’s invitation for an opportunity to overrule Abood.