Unions Survive Supreme Court Challenge from Christian Teachers

Fight for freedom of association could have eliminated collective bargaining.
Unions Survive Supreme Court Challenge from Christian Teachers

As the cost of living skyrockets in Silicon Valley, veteran middle school teacher Rick Schertle relies on the teachers’ union to advocate for the salary and benefits needed for his family of four to get by in San Jose.

So Schertle, along with 325,000 teachers in California and millions of public employees across the country, let out a sigh of relief after the US Supreme Court deadlocked today, allowing unions to continue to levy bargaining power by charging non-members.

The legal challenge to the status quo came from teachers with Christian Educators Association International (CEAI), a member of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. Schertle identifies as an evangelical himself, but didn’t share the plaintiffs’ views on the union.

“We get worn down just trying to fight for the basics. If collective bargaining were taken away or weakened, I don’t know where we’d go,” said Schertle, who pays $3,500 a year out-of-pocket for medical costs not covered by the state’s insurance plan.

In Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, several teachers belonging to CEAI argued that requiring non-members to pay to cover unions’ collective bargaining efforts violates the First Amendment. The Christian group disagrees with the statewide union’s policies on social issues; they believe that even if union funding doesn’t go toward political activity, it represents a form of “compelled speech,” which violates CEAI members’ freedom of speech and association.

While employers can’t force a teacher to become a member, teachers’ unions in California and 20 other states charge non-members “agency fees” or “fair share fees” to cover collective bargaining and other basic activities—preventing them from benefitting from the perks of the group’s efforts for free.

“The union leadership is so far left now that it sees anything that is godly as the enemy,” said Finn Laursen, CEAI’s executive director, in an interview with the Daily Signal. The group raised concerns about the union’s support of Planned Parenthood, its approach to LGBT students, and other political positions. It also works to equip public school teachers with legal ways to share their faith in the classroom.

A Christian who leads the Campus Life club at his school, Schertle admits that he questions why the California Teachers Association gets involved with issues such as abortion, but supports its efforts overall. In his mind, “underappreciated and underpaid” public school teachers need all the help they can get.

Margaret Lim Ma, a kindergarten teacher in San Jose, prays weekly with the three other believers at her school, including a “conservative Christian” teacher who serves as a union representative. After teaching at a charter school without unions and public schools with them, she said, “I’d rather have the union” to protect her salary and benefits like maternity leave.

This recent case out of California positions individual rights of free association against the collective rights of workers. It’s a dispute workers—and evangelicals in particular—have disagreed over since the earliest days of the labor movement.

In the late 19th century, several evangelicals spoke out as prominent advocates for workers’ rights and unions, including Andrew Cameron, the Chicago printer who helped found the country’s first national labor federation. They pushed for a Christian social ethic that would bring the Bible’s teachings on work into the American economy and labor force, said Heath Carter, author of Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago.

But not all in the church followed their lead. “More elite Christians saw unions imposing on the freedom of the individual, and that’s a God-given right, too,” he said. “That concern is still there.”

For now, teachers in 21 states will have to continue to pay union fees even if they oppose the union or its policies, according to the 4-4 split ruling by the high court which keeps in place the existing requirements.

“The death of Justice Scalia left a void in our nation, in the Supreme Court, and in our case. We believe his death directly lead to a tie vote,” Laursen said in a statement.

Under “union-busting” evangelical Governor Scott Walker, Wisconsin passed a major labor overhaul in 2011 that eliminated agency fees. Since then, teachers’ association membership has dropped by half. When employees are required to pay the fee, they’re more likely to opt to pay the additional cost to join as a full member; for example, in California, it costs about $1,000 a year to join the teachers’ association and $650 to pay the agency fee, according to the education journal Education Next.

During the debate over the Wisconsin labor law, evangelicals indicated the lowest favorability toward government employee unions of any religious group surveyed by the Pew Research Center. Moreover, some evangelicals remain skeptical of public schools, concerned that the environment has grown hostile towards teachers and students of faith.

Blogger Tim Challies called out this mentality in a recent post, entitled Stop Slandering Public School Teachers:

We have been assured that public schools are the breeding ground for every kind of social evil, that they are the lair of predatory teachers, that they are full of tenured and unionized employees who care nothing for children. We have heard that public school teachers care only for ideology, that they will allow no leeway for Christian beliefs, that they will do their utmost to undermine the hard training of parents who attempt to raise their children with biblical ideals. In many Christian circles, public school teachers are made out to be the enemies of the faith.

Our experience of public school teachers has been far different and far more positive. And I don’t think we are the exception.

CEAI, the group at the center of the Supreme Court case, plans to file a petition for a re-hearing with the Supreme Court.

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Unions Survive Supreme Court Challenge from Christian Teachers