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The anti-union case being heard today by the Supreme Court: A backgrounder

The anti-union case being heard today by the Supreme Court: A backgrounder
Anaheim teacher Rebecca Friedrichs, the lead plaintiff in the anti-union case now before the Supreme Court, in 2013. (Greg Schneider / Associated Press)

On the surface, Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Assn., which is being argued Monday before the U.S. Supreme Court, looks like a free-speech case. Lead plaintiff Rebecca Friedrichs, an Anaheim schoolteacher, contends that she's being forced to pay fees to a union whose positions she doesn't share.

As we explained in this column about a similar California case, Bain vs. California Teachers Assn., these lawsuits aren't about free speech, or improving education for children. They're about silencing the political voice of teacher unions by cutting off their revenues. They're part of a concerted attack on organized labor mounted by conservative organizations.

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Collective bargaining is inherently political.


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The Bain case, which was thrown out in September by a federal judge in Los Angeles, was brought by StudentsFirst, a group founded by former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. Before leaving the organization in 2014 under a cloud, Rhee established its philosophy that the problem with education is that teachers have too much power and job protection. The organization behind Friedrichs is the Center for Individual Rights, which is funded by a galaxy of right wing groups, some of them with ties to the Koch brothers.

The real goal of these lawsuits is to overturn the Supreme Court's so-called Abood precedent, established by a 1977 decision in a case involving the Detroit schools. In that case, the court validated "agency fees." Under the law and according to the decision, workers can be assessed non-member fees to cover solely the cost of negotiations and contract enforcement, without being compelled to join a union and support its political activities with their dues.

Since the union is required to represent all workers in these negotiations, not just its dues-paying members, the reduced agency fees are a fair way to avoid free-riders who get the benefit of union negotiations without becoming members and paying dues.

Agency fees are at issue in Friedrichs, and were at the center of the Bain case. They also have been the target of three California ballot initiatives in 16 years. All three initiatives failed at the polls.

The argument in the Friedrichs case is that it's impossible to distinguish political from non-political activities. "Collective bargaining is inherently political," the Center for Individual Rights says.

Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see our Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.

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