Q&A: Rebecca Friedrichs
Reflections on the Janus v. AFSCME ruling, from the plaintiff in a similar case
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that public-sector unions could no longer collect “agency fees” from employees who choose not to join the union. Two years ago, the court seemed poised to ban this practice before the unexpected death of Justice Antonin Scalia led to a four-four split in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. Marty West, executive editor of Education Next, spoke with Rebecca Friedrichs, the lead plaintiff in that case.
MW: As a veteran teacher, why did you object to California’s policies on agency fees? In what sense do these fees violate individual rights?
RF: Number one, it’s forced representation. My union was voted in when I was a little kid. I don’t know one person in a union who has ever had the opportunity to vote on the question of whether they even wanted the union that represents them. Second, the unions take $1,000, $1,200 a year [in fees], and they’re totally unaccountable; we don’t know where that money’s going in most cases.
MW: By law, teachers have been allowed to opt out of the portion of union dues that go to political activities, so, at least in theory, the agency fee only supported the collective bargaining activities from which all teachers stand to benefit—but you argued to the court that even the union’s collective bargaining activities are political, because they involve interacting with government about policies that control how schools are operated.
RF: Yes. In fact it was Justice Scalia who stated that collective bargaining in the public sector is always political, because it impacts taxpayer dollars. The unions’ legal coalition even conceded that point during our oral arguments. What’s more, the National Education Association’s Representative Assembly sets NEA’s resolutions and writes its new business items each year, and all teachers, including fee payers, are forced to fund their representation and decisions. Yet the NEA stands in solidarity with Planned Parenthood, Southern Poverty Law Center, ACLU, and other highly political, one-sided organizations that often run counter to the values and desires of many boots-on-the-ground teachers. Through agency fees, unions take our money and push their social and political agenda behind our backs. When we ask for accountability, we get bullied, silenced, and labeled “union busters,” “haters,” and “free riders.”
MW: How were you treated by your colleagues as your case moved through the federal court system between 2013 and 2016?
RF: The unions control teachers in what I call a culture of fear, and you’d better not speak out against them or they call you names. They called me radical right-winger; they called me spawn of Satan. Most people at my school didn’t speak with me openly—that was too scary—but a lot of teachers and administrators would pull me into darkened rooms, they’d hug me, they’d tell me they were praying for me, that they’d hoped I’d win.
MW: In a case similar to yours, Mark Janus was successful before the Supreme Court this past June. What do you think the consequences will be for teachers unions? Will they be weakened without the power to exact agency fees?
RF: I think that’s entirely up to the unions. If they continue their current behavior, bullying everybody and ignoring those who choose not to join, they will be weakened, because if people are allowed to leave, they’ll leave. But if the unions step it up and start doing what people want and stop getting so involved in divisive politics, I think they could actually do a lot better.
MW: What do you make of the recent wave of strikes in six states where teachers have walked out to demand better compensation but also better funding for schools?
RF: The teachers I know do not want to leave the classroom for a strike, they want to serve the children, but they’re bullied if they don’t go out and strike. They’re called “scabs,” they’re screamed at, they’re ignored. Unions use teachers and kids to push their agenda. Angry strikes are not how teachers want to stand together.
MW: What are other ways that teachers could unite to have more of a voice?
RF: Teachers can sit together and intelligently discuss what needs to happen to improve student outcomes in our schools. What is it that we really need to do a better job? There were many years when, more than a raise, I really wanted help in the classroom. Students would come to me four grade levels behind in reading, and I was expected to bring them up, and I was one teacher with 34 students. I wanted a teacher’s aide. I always wanted a science lab. I always wanted a music program. We never had any of that. Local teachers can get together and decide what’s best for the students in their community—working with parents, too, because parents have been voiceless. Teachers can stand together and leave the bullying state and national unions—decertify the entire web of union control—and then they can create “local only” associations and have a collective voice. Our dues would be about $200 a year, and we wouldn’t have to fund unaccountable state and national unions and their political agenda.
This is an edited excerpt from an Education Next podcast, which can be heard on www.educationnext.org.