Many in the US labour movement see the Friedrichs case as a direct attack on workers’ fundamental rights…

It may not be a clear triumph, but the 4-4 vote of the US Supreme Court in the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case at the end of March is without doubt a victory for US public sector unions, and therefore for public sector unions everywhere. It has also become a signpost to the forthcoming substantive debates in the campaign for the White House.

GLI-rebecca friedrichs-thumbThe Friedrichs case is named for Rebecca Friedrichs (pictured left on Fox TV), one of a group of ten teachers who, together with the US Christian Educators Association International and with support from the right-wing Centre for Individual Rights (CIR), launched a campaign against the practice of allowing public sector unions to charge non-members a so-called “agency” or “fair-share” fee to help fund collective bargaining work and other basic union tasks. The CIR’s strategy was to rely on what had been an inbuilt Republican majority on the Supreme Court to overturn a ruling in a lower court.

The practice of charging agency fees—accepted in 25 US states and the District of Columbia—has never prevented individuals from withdrawing from a union’s political levy and has been defended because collective bargaining and other basic union work directly benefits union members and non-members alike. The CIR, however, believes that “collective bargaining is inherently political” and must therefore be opposed.

According to the New York Times, the CIR launched its case in response to signals from the Supreme Court’s five right-wing justices. In the event, the sudden death of Court member Justice Antonin Scalia a few weeks ago, upset the group’s plans. The 4-4 vote means that a lower court decision which recognises the constitutionality of the agency fee system has been upheld. Unfortunately, it doesn’t settle the matter and the CIR intends to “file a petition for re-hearing with the Supreme Court”.

The global union, Public Services International (PSI) welcomed the tied vote and commented that the Court had “rejected an attempt by wealthy special interests to restrict opportunities for America’s teachers, fire fighters, police officers, nurses and others who provide vital services for our communities to have a voice at work and join together to build a better future for their families.”

PSI’s General Secretary, Rosa Pavanelli, called the news “a relief for the whole trade union movement”. She said that, “In a time when public services workers are under attack, the Supreme Court rule is an important statement that their right to organise and collectively represent cannot be stripped and are part of the fundamental workers’ rights.”

The PSI noted that while it’s US affiliates all welcomed the news, there was still much work to be done to ensure that the agency fee system covered all public sector workers, and would not be overturned by a re-hearing.

“We know this fight is far from over,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). “Just as our opponents won’t stop coming after us, we will continue full speed ahead in our effort to mobilise our members and their neighbours around a shared vision to reclaim the promise of America. While we wait for Senate Republicans to do their job and appoint a new justice to the Court, we’re working hard for the future we want to see—one with vibrant public education [for all ages]; affordable, accessible healthcare; public services that support strong neighbourhoods, and the right to organise and bargain for a fair wage and a voice on the job.”

Many in the US labour movement see the Friedrichs case as a direct attack on workers’ fundamental rights. “As public service workers learn more about the Friedrichs case, they are shocked to hear about such a political attack through the Supreme Court,” said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). “They are more motivated than ever to step up, get involved, and organise. It’s never been clearer that our most basic rights are at stake.”

In the run up to the US election in November, the case is seen as part of a concerted Republican attack. “We know the wealthy extremists who pushed this case want to limit the ability for workers to have a voice, curb voting rights and restrict opportunities for women and immigrants,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). “And we know the way to stop them is by taking our fight to the polls.”

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Gary Herman

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