by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Almost everybody agrees that an employee – public or private – should be judged on his or her individual qualifications and performance. Yet, for many of the nation’s teachers, their freedom to be treated as individuals is barred by a collective bargaining process that treats them as a group. This is why several brave individual teachers are challenging that process in a lawsuit now before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association is being painted as a battle against unions, but that characterization misses the more fundamental point of the case. While the unions are, indeed, politically powerful and derive much of their power from dues and fees collected from teachers, the unions are just instruments in the collective bargaining process, and it’s the process itself that’s really at issue.
The plaintiffs are 10 nonunion teachers who argue that they should not be forced to pay so-called “agency shop” fees to the teachers union, as a condition of employment in many states, to help finance collective bargaining that results in a single contract with a school district that covers all teachers. The big rub for them is that the contract is an inherently political document that often contains policies detrimental to individual teachers and students.
Take, for example, teacher tenure and discipline policies that are part of these contracts. Rebecca Friedrichs, lead plaintiff and a longtime Orange County public school teacher, recounted for the Pacific Research Institute how, as a young teacher, she saw an abusive teacher in her school.
“I would witness every day as she would yell at the children, grab them by the arms and yank them into line,” and it was, to Ms. Friedrichs, “obvious that they were terrified of her.” When Ms. Friedrichs asked her mentor teacher about what could be done about the situation, her mentor “informed me that it was very difficult for districts to rid themselves of tenured teachers who were no longer effective in the classroom.”
Thus, instead of such teachers being held accountable, collectively bargained tenure and discipline policies shield them from individual responsibility. This process forces teachers like Ms. Friedrichs to pay for policies that they oppose, which violates their constitutional rights to free speech and free association.