The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Monday in a high-profile labor case that could significantly affect public employee unions nationwide.
At issue is Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a case brought by 10 nonunion public school teachers in California who object to paying "agency" or "fair share" fees to their local union.
The plaintiffs -- represented by the the Center for Individual Rights (CIR), a conservative public interest law firm -- argue that the mandatory fees, which support costs associated with collective bargaining, violate their First Amendment rights.
"Requiring teachers to pay these 'agency fees' assumes that collective bargaining is non-political," reads a posting on CIR's website. "But bargaining with local governments is inherently political. Whether the union is negotiating for specific class sizes or pressing a local government to spend tax dollars on teacher pensions rather than on building parks, the union's negotiating positions embody political choices that are often controversial."
Others say the case was brought in an attempt to weaken labor groups by reducing their fiscal resources and is part of a larger anti-union campaign pushed by right-wing interests.
Jean Ross, co-president of National Nurses United, is among those who share that view.
"The intended effect is to essentially bankrupt public sector unions, including many nurse unions that advocate for patient safety, by allowing members to enjoy all the privileges of union representation, including wage increases, health coverage, pensions upon their retirement, and improved working conditions, while avoiding any financial responsibility to help support the work done by their union on their behalf," she said in June after the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
"The architects of this move are the management-linked groups, funded by some of the wealthiest corporate interests in the U.S. whose goal is to eliminate the ability of workers to have a voice in the workplace or limit the ability of corporations to put profits ahead of worker rights, workplace rights, and in the case of nurses, patient health and safety," Ross added.
Plaintiffs want the Supreme Court to overturn its decision in the Abood v. Detroit Board of Education case from 1977, which allowed unions to require those they represent, but who are nonunion members, to pay fees to cover bargaining costs.
"A decision that overturns Abood would simply make it harder for unions to have the resources that would enable them to protect all members covered under the collective bargaining agreements, and of course to do any external organizing of new workers and new governmental unions," said Robert Bruno, professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois. "It could impose the equivalent of a right-to-work regime in the public sector across the country."
Right-to-work policies generally prohibit employers and unions from entering into contracts requiring that workers pay union dues as a condition of employment.
The Friedrichs case has the attention of Illinoisans, including Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who has filed an amicus curiae, or "friend of the court," brief in support of the plaintiffs.
In Illinois, Rauner is going after mandatory nonmember union fees and wants to limit collective bargaining in the public sector. He has also pushed for right-to-work zones in Illinois.
Local workers are also paying attention to the case, including Niles North High School teacher Pankaj Sharma, an Illinois Federation of Teachers member.
Sharma and workers from other states will be speaking outside the U.S. Supreme Court in support of labor unions before Monday's oral arguments in the case.
In a statement, Sharma said the case is essentially about "powerful special interests trying to silence the voices of teachers like me, who work hard every day in an imbalanced economy that currently favors the most wealthy, not average Americans."
California teacher Harlan Elrich, one of the plaintiffs, sees it differently.
"No one in the U.S. should be forced to give money to a private organization he or she disagrees with fundamentally," he wrote in an opinion piece published Sunday in the Wall Street Journal. "In our view, paying fees to a union should not be a prerequisite for teaching in a public school. Teachers deserve a choice."
Bruno, meanwhile, pointed to a potential boomerang effect that could materialize for labor opponents in the event that the Supreme Court sides with the plaintiffs.
"There is quite a bit of internal organizing and mobilizing going on within the labor movement to think about how they're going to respond and continue to function, which might end up actually creating a much more highly mobilized union movement than had existed prior to the court's decision," he said.
A decision in the case is expected by June.