The Supreme Court Case Against Teachers' Unions Could Have a Far-Reaching Impact

If the Supreme Court overturns Abood, will the middle class suffer?
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If the Supreme Court overturns Abood, will the middle class suffer?
People for and against unions hold up signs in front of the Supreme Court building on January 11, 2016, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

People for and against unions hold up signs in front of the Supreme Court building on January 11, 2016, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. The case—which was brought by veteran fourth-grade teacher Rebecca Friedrichs and nine other California teachers, and organized by the libertarian-leaning Center for Individual Rights—asks the Court to overturn the 1977 Abood v. Detroit of Education ruling in favor of the constitutionality of mandatory union fees. There's a dearth of data available on how the elimination of mandatory union fees would affect union membership, but a ruling in favor of Friedrichs and her fellow petitioners at least has the potential to shrink public-sector union budgets around the country, which has troubling consequences for an already-struggling middle class.

While the Abood decision concluded that so-called "agency fees"—payments that non-union member public sector employees are required to dish out to unions to cover their portion of the union's collective bargaining expenses—were legal, it also determined that non-union employees must be permitted to opt out of any fees that were dedicated to a union's "political activities." The California teachers in the Friedrichs case are arguing that everything public-sector unions do is, in fact, political, and that agency fees thus constitute a violation of their First Amendment rights.

"In this era of broken municipal budgets and a national crisis in public education, it is difficult to imagine more politically charged issues than how much money local governments should devote to public employees, or what policies public schools should adopt to best educate children," the teachers' lawyers write in the opening brief. "Yet California and more than twenty other states compel millions of public employees to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to fund a very specific viewpoint on these pressing public questions, regardless of whether those employees support or benefit from the union's policies."

Only 11.1 percent of American workers in 2014 were unionized, as compared to 34.8 percent of workers in 1954.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Rebecca Friedrichs and her fellow teachers, which legal analysts currently expect it to, public-sector unions will no doubt have to trim their budgets, although it's not clear by how much. Unions argue that eliminating mandatory agency fees will create an incentive to opt for free rides: Union members, no longer subject to mandatory union fees, would be able to quit their unions, saving themselves hundreds of dollars a year, but still benefit from the collective bargaining perks the unions obtain on their behalf.

Not everyone agrees with that prediction, including several conservative members of the Court. "Why do you think that the union would not survive without these fees charged to non-members of the union?" Justice Antonin Scalia asked during the oral arguments. "Federal employee unions do not charge agency fees to non-members, and they seem to survive. Indeed, they prosper."

For most Americans today, unions are a bit of a relic, products of a bygone era when men in small towns across the country graduated high school and went straight to work at the local coal mine or automobile plant with a guarantee of life-long employment, good benefits, a generous pension, and a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. According to data from the Pew Research Center, only 11.1 percent of American workers (and 6.6 percent of private sector workers) in 2014 were unionized, as compared to 34.8 percent of workers in 1954.

The demographics of union membership have also changed dramatically in recent years. In New York City, for example, white men account for less than 25 percent of union members, as women and minorities are increasingly the face of modern unions. As organizations like the Fight for 15 movement work to organize the low-wage workers that the traditional labor movement has historically ignored, this trend is likely to continue.

Last fall, the National Bureau of Economic Research released a working paper by Richard Freeman, Eunice Han, David Madland, and Brendan V. Duke on the relationship between unions, the middle class, and intergenerational mobility. In it, the authors present evidence that both union members and their children enjoy better outcomes than non-union members, although they caution that their research doesn't establish causality. "The adult offspring of unionized parents earn higher labor income compared to the offspring of non-unionized parents," the authors wrote. "The offspring of unionized parents also attain higher levels of education and better health status."

Unions also seem to have significant spillover effects. Children raised in areas with high union density enjoyed better outcomes, regardless of whether their own parents were union members, than children raised in low union density areas, according to the NBER report. "Unions often support the policies that improve well-being of workers, such as increasing the minimum wage," Han, who has filed an amicus brief in the Friedrichs case, writes in an email. "Also, they vote for better public service, for instance higher education spending. These policies affect everyone, including non-union workers, within the regions."

In a related report released this year by the Center for American Progress, Freeman, Han, Madland, and Duke calculated that "the weakening labor movement directly contributed about 47.7 percent of the falling share of middle-class workers between 1984 and 2014."

The constitutionality of mandatory agency fees is a legal question, not an economic one. The research of Han and her co-authors suggests, however, that improving the prospects of low-income workers and restoring the middle class will be challenging without organizations that advocate for workers with the same vigor that management and shareholders advocate for themselves.

If the Court overturns Abood, and public-sector employees do, in fact, desert their unions in significant numbers, as union advocates have argued they will, the ever-shrinking middle class may just shrink a little bit more.