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October 21, 2015

By Courtney Hamilton

An important set of labor union protections are under fire in the upcoming Supreme Court case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association: agency fees, alternatively called “fair share” fees.

In public sector employment, employee unions function under a security agreement called “agency shop.” Under this agreement, employers can hire both union and non-union employees, so long as non-union members pay “fair share” fees to contribute to the collective bargaining from which they benefit regardless of their membership. As labor unions generally bargain on behalf of all of a shop’s employees, non-union members included, the agency fees—typically equal to union dues—prevent employees from free riding from collective bargaining benefits.

And those benefits are great: according to research by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, unionization raises the wages of low wage workers by over 20 percent, while raising wages for average workers by 13.7 percent and 6.1 percent for high-wage workers. Unions ensure higher wage premiums across all 50 states and the District of Columbia, the center says. Fair share fees typically do not exceed an individual worker’s increased wage premiums gained through collective bargaining. Beyond wages, unions also negotiate better health insurance benefits and pensions for all shop employees.

Plaintiff Rebecca Friedrichs, a California public teacher, filed the petition with the aggressive assertion that non-union members paying into collective bargaining violates First Amendment protection from compelled speech. The petition asks the court to invalidate agency shop security and in effect advocates for misleadingly-named “right-to-work” laws.

The consequences of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association are far-reaching. It potentially guts public sector unions of the funding that enables collective bargaining, undermining the wage and benefits security of all of a shop’s employees. According to Ian Millhiser at ThinkProgress, should conservative Supreme Court justices rule in favor of the plaintiffs, “they will work considerable mischief upon the Democratic Party’s infrastructure.” Because unions are integral to the Democratic coalition, the Democratic Party weakens alongside them. Ultimately, Millhiser says, this makes it more likely that “the next slate of Supreme Court justices will be appointed by a Republican.”

Millennials might stand to benefit from organized labor representation more than any demographic, and weakened unions could undermine their access to fair wage employment even further. Millennials face some of the lowest wages in decades, exacerbated by their significantly higher debt loads and accompanying financial insecurity. While union support proves a staunchly bipartisan issue, Millennials of both political parties tend to support unionization. Paradoxically, young workers are the least likely to be members of unions. As the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL–CIO) observes, this is because young workers have few opportunities to join unions. Should unions be weakened further, these already limited opportunities will continue to decline.

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