Unions Do Not Benefit All Employees

Friedrichs is a case study in how unions can benefit some at the expense of others

In the Friedrichs case before the U.S. Supreme Court, the core of union-supporters' argument is that government employees should be forced to pay fees to a union because they benefit from union activities. Not paying the union, they say, makes an employee a free rider.

Or, as The Atlantic put it recently: “[Rebecca] Friedrichs is not a member of the union, but, like many other public employees, is required to pay a so-called agency fee to cover the costs of collective bargaining and other negotiations with the school district — union activities that all teachers, even nonunion teachers like Friedrichs, benefit from in the form of higher salaries and better benefits.”

It is true that union members can benefit from union actions. But not all of them.

In fact, Rebecca Friedrichs says in a video profile that one of the major disputes between her and her local union was over the issue of using a “last in, first out” policy for teacher retention. In her district, the union was pushing for pay raises for teachers, but to pay for those raises, the district would be forced to lay off some teachers. According to the union contract, the teachers to be laid off would not be the ones deemed the least effective, but simply the ones with the least experience. Friedrichs says the union's insistence on getting pay raises for some members forced the district to lay off excellent teachers, including a few whom she had invested time and energy in mentoring. She says these teachers were loved by parents, their colleagues and even administrators. Her suggestion to the union was for all teachers to take a small pay cut in exchange for all teachers being able to keep their jobs. The union wouldn't listen to her and insisted on bargaining for pay raises despite the fact that it would mean good teachers would be laid off and everybody else would get increased class sizes.

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The union members who were laid off certainly did not benefit from union activities. And the other teachers in the district who agreed with Rebecca Friedrichs — that a small pay cut was worth keeping good teachers on staff and maintaining current class sizes — didn't benefit either.

Whether or not one agrees with how that situation was handled, it is undeniable that this was a decision which created winners and losers. And nearly all bargaining decisions involve trade-offs, meaning some union members will benefit and others will pay a cost. The pending Friedrichs case questions whether it is proper to force all teachers, regardless of whether they agree with these union decisions, to financially support the union.


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