Corporate interests seek to abolish “agency fee” payments.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the anti-union Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association on Monday, Jan. 11. This lawsuit, backed by big-money corporate interests, seeks to abolish the right of public-sector unions to collect “agency fee” payments — also known as “fair share” payments — from employees who benefit from negotiated collective bargaining agreements but refuse to join with colleagues in union membership. A decision in the case is expected by June.
The right of unions to charge a “fee” for workers who receive their services but do not pay dues has been recognized by federal and state courts and legislatures for decades. When a majority of employees in a bargaining unit votes for union representation, the union becomes the “exclusive representative” of those employees in dealing with the employer over workplace issues. The union’s right of exclusive representation comes with a corresponding responsibility: It must fairly represent all employees, even those who refuse to join the union and pay the dues that enable the union to carry out its responsibilities.
Under current law in Massachusetts and 24 other states, plus Washington, D.C., local and state jurisdictions are entitled to adopt agency fee requirements. These agreements are common in Massachusetts. They mean that every employee who is a member of a bargaining unit covered by such a requirement can either join the union and pay full dues or become an agency fee payer and only pay a “fair share” portion of the dues that goes towards bargaining and maintaining the contract.
Upheld almost four decades ago in a frequently cited Supreme Court decision, such fees enable unions to collect payments from non-members for the cost of bargaining and enforcing the contract while ensuring that the objectors are not forced to pay for union political activities that they oppose.
The plaintiffs in the Friedrichs case are seeking to abolish agency fee requirements in California and, by extension, in all states. They are asking the court to rule that unions must be required to bargain on behalf of, defend and represent all employees in a bargaining unit — even those who pay nothing for that representation.
In the so-called Right to Work states where agency fee systems have been banned, a number of employees choose to become “free-riders” — to accept all benefits of the contract but not pay any dues or fees, thereby leaving it to their dues-paying colleagues to shoulder the entire expense. This leads to dissension among employees, to budget cuts, to a loss of services and to a reduction in the power of the employees to organize and fight for fair treatment in the workplace and in society.

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