Friedrichs and the Move Toward Private Ordering of Wages and Benefits in the Public Sector

Source: Maria O’Brien Hylton, Boston University School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 16-34, August 29, 2016

From the abstract:
In its recent Harris v. Quinn opinion the U.S. Supreme Court (in particular Justice Alito) seemed to welcome a future opportunity to reconsider the 1977 landmark Abood decision in which public sector closed shop employees were not required to join a union but could be subject to fees that cover the costs of “collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment purposes.” Supporters of the Abood approach argue that it is a reasonable compromise that prevents non-members from free riding on the union’s efforts (i.e. enjoying the wages and benefits negotiated by the union without sharing the costs incurred.) Detractors and the plaintiffs in Friedrichs argue that free riding concerns are insufficient to overcome serious First Amendment objections. The central idea is that all bargaining in the public sector is inherently political. Public sector pay, tenure and benefits (especially expensive retiree health care and pension promises), it is claimed, now profoundly affect the ability of state and local governments to function in many jurisdictions. This article briefly reviews the major claim in Friedrichs — that public sector agency agreements violate the First Amendment — and considers the implications of a decision that, but for Justice Scalia’s unexpected death almost certainly would have overturned Abood. What would this mean for financially strapped state and local governments? To understand what a victory for the Friedrichs plaintiffs would mean, this paper looks at recent data from Wisconsin which dramatically constrained public sector agency agreements a few years ago and has seen public union membership, union revenue and political power plunge as a result. If Friedrichs had overturned Abood during the 2016 term, we would now expect to see national patterns similar to those observed in Wisconsin. In many places around the country a drop in public sector union political power would be expected to translate into a climate more supportive of reduced future expenditures on public pensions and health care.