If Orange County teacher Rebecca Friedrichs wins her case against the California Teachers Assn., it could prompt an exodus of members and lead thousands of the state's public workers to stop paying union dues or fees.
Labor leaders and their allies said dwindling membership rolls — and shrinking treasuries — would undercut unions' strength in collective bargaining.
"This is part of an ongoing, concerted effort to undermine the existence of unions and weaken them," said former state Assembly Speaker John Pérez, a longtime labor leader who argued that labor is crucial to fight growing income inequality.
Unions in California give millions of dollars in campaign contributions to Democrats who dominate both houses of the Legislature and hold every statewide elective office.
Their influence is unrivaled in healthcare, education and other policy areas. No voice is louder on protecting retirement benefits for the government workforce.
"The public employee unions make the robber barons and the railroad barons of 100 years ago look like small potatoes," said Republican campaign consultant Kevin Spillane.
Under state law, government workers covered by collective bargaining agreements are not required to join a union and pay dues. But they must pay a fee — a bit less than dues — to cover the union's cost of representing their interests, for example in negotiating higher wages.
If the court rules against the teachers union, public employees could pay neither the fee nor the dues, but still benefit from union-negotiated contracts.
"It would bankrupt the union," said Scott Mandel, a Pacoima Middle School teacher and representative of United Teachers Los Angeles in the eastern San Fernando Valley.
Mandel, who does not speak officially for the union, said atrophy of the membership rolls would pose a serious threat if unions lose the case.
"We wouldn't have the resources to protect our teachers," he said.
For unions, the immediate challenge would be to persuade the public employees they represent that it serves their interests to be dues-paying members, a potentially tough task with workers struggling to pay monthly bills.
Lou Paulson, president of the 30,000-member California Professional Firefighters, raised the specter of divided workplaces, with those paying their share of union costs looking upon those who pay nothing as freeloaders.
He used the scenario of 10 people dining together every night, with eight of them required to pick up the tab for the two who refuse to pay for meals.
"That's going to create problems," he said. "That's just human nature."
Of 169,765 California state government workers represented by unions in December, 47,805, or 28%, were paying what the unions call "fair share" fees rather than full-scale member dues, according to the state controller's office.
For many of those who opt to pay fees instead of joining a union, it's a means of avoiding putting personal money into political causes they don't support, such as labor's campaign donations to Democrats.
Republican leaders and business groups have put multiple ballot measures before California voters in recent years to curb union spending on politics, but voters in the heavily Democratic state have rejected them.
A longtime supporter of such measures is Larry Sand, a retired Los Angeles teacher who declined to join UTLA and paid the fees instead.
"We get to have choices in everything else we do in life — the restaurants where we eat, the clothes we buy, the cars we drive," said Sand, now president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network, a group that opposes teachers unions. "Why not union participation?"
Sand hopes the court case will diminish teachers unions' clout in Sacramento.
"Without teachers paying," he said, "they just won't have enough money to force their work rules down everyone's throat."