Free Choice?

Free Choice?

Droel_pictureby Bill Droel

Rebecca Friedrichs doesn’t want to pay her union dues. And indeed, because our culture is premised on individualism some workers can now legally opt out of their dues. Friedrichs, whose workplace is represented by California Teachers Association, wants something more. She wants no payroll deduction for what is called agency fee or fair share service fee. This is an amount between $350 to $400 a year given to a union for negotiating her contract and handling any grievance she may have. Friedrichs doesn’t want the union speaking for her in the public sphere at all and she thinks an agency fee is a violation of free speech.

Friedrichs does not have a moral objection to any union position in the sense that a particular topic touches on her religious liberty—a matter like abortion or, let’s say, marriage policies or even evolution. Her objection covers anything the union says about classroom size, teacher evaluation, the merits of charter schools and the like. The union, by the way, is not allowed to leave Friedrichs off its lists, allowing her to handle any situation on her own.

Here are remedies Friedrichs might take:

• She could apply for a job at a school without a union. Some Catholic schools, for example, do not have a union, though some do. Friedrichs, however, prefers her current workplace, presumably in part because its union wages are higher than in nearly all private schools.

• Friedrichs and her like-minded friends could go to union meetings and lobby for positions they favor. That is, they could reform the union from within. But that approach is out of sync with our penchant for individualism.

So Friedrichs, like many people who disagree with one thing or another, got a lawyer. She is now on the way to the Supreme Court, as early as October 2015 or sometime in 2016.
Friedrichs and her co-plaintiffs may or may not be religious. The natural law, however, applies to all of them. The natural law upholds rights. It is not though beholden to individualism. It blends responsibility with rights. On this workplace topic natural law says:

  • People are interdependent by nature; we are not ragged individuals.
  • A society with many buffer groups is healthier than a total State.
  • Unions are a primary buffer group. Not every workplace needs to have a union, but society at large must have many bargaining unions within it.
  • A workplace with a union is a closed shop. That is, an employer in such a workplace cannot, among those eligible for bargaining, hire some union members and some workers who are not. Collective bargaining quickly becomes dysfunctional if some are in and some are out.
  • Simple quid pro quo justice or fairness requires all eligible workers in a union shop to join and participate in their local. They thus can enjoy the benefits of one another’s sacrifices and contributions.

U.S. law has a basis in the natural law. But specific court cases weigh multiple values. Friedrichs may win her case, maybe not. Without endorsing any one union or any one position of any union, her behavior and that of her co-plaintiffs in this matter is a blow to the already fragmented social network in our society. On other civic matters (participation in voluntary organizations or active membership in a church or in a precinct or even care for extended family members) Friedrichs and the others might be exemplary. This column treats a limited topic; it has no need to know about her other involvements.

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a free printed newsletter about faith and work.