Will Supreme Court Break the Power of Philly’s Municipal Unions?

Court could rule that non-members no longer have to pay union dues.

The U.S. Supreme Court | Shutterstock.com

The U.S. Supreme Court | Shutterstock.com

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday heard a case that could undermine the power of Philadephia’s powerful municipal unions.

The case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, doesn’t directly involve Philadelphia. But the issue it decides — whether civic unions that serve the School District of Philadelphia, City Hall and other public institutions can force non-members to pay union dues as a “fair share” of the benefits they receive from union activity — could have a big impact here.

“All of the unions in the city of Philadelphia, certainly the school district, and the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, have negotiated fair share agreements. So if the court were to overrule that decision, it would have very serious consequences for all local unions, including the uniformed services,” attorney Elaine Williams told KYW.

The New York Times said it appeared the court will rule against the unions, based on First Amendment grounds: Individuals shouldn’t have to pay to support the activities of an organization they don’t agree with.

That belief was most clearly articulated by Justice Anthony Kennedy. If a worker “is required to pay $500 for someone to espouse a belief that he doesn’t share,” he said, it’s not necessarily made fair because “he is now free to go out and argue against it. That means he has to spend another $500 so that it balances out? That makes no sense.”

Unions argue that they’ll be weakened without the fees, and that non-members who benefit from their collective bargaining advocacy are getting an unfair “free ride.”

George Jackson, a spokesman for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said there are only a “few” non-members in the school district who pay union dues. (According to a recent PFT document, 5 percent of eligible employees are non-members.) However, Jackson said a Supreme Court ruling against unions would still negatively affect the PFT. He said the change could make it more difficult to convince teachers to join the union as well as stay in it.

“You have to re-sign everybody every year,” he said. “It’s definitely problematic because the resources it takes just to put that into place diverts from what you’re able to do on the business of running the union. … It will have an impact. I don’t care who you are.”

Justice Antonin Scalia was unsympathetic. “Federal employee unions do not charge agency fees to non-members, and they seem to survive,” he said. “Indeed, they prosper.”

One local observer suggested that Philly’s union culture is so strong that the Supreme Court ruling may be near-meaningless.

“If union members choose to not pay these fees, they will be ostracized by their fellow employees and will be made to feel uncomfortable,” political strategist Larry Ceisler told The Philadelphia Citizen. “This ruling could bring about changes, but not necessarily the crippling blow the anti-union advocates would hope for.”