On Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States heard a case that could have a major impact on the nation's labor movement.
It concerns public employee unions. Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association challenges a 40-year-old law that allows unions to collect fees from all employees – union members or not.
Nevada has about 170,000 public union members, and another 23,000 workers who are represented by a union, but are not union members themselves.
The compulsory fees are supposed to cover the cost of collective bargaining and representation the union does on behalf of all workers, regardless of union membership.
Should the California Teachers Association lose the case, the ramifications could be far reaching, and deal a devastating blow to the labor movement.
Stephanie Mencimer has covered the case from the Washington Bureau of Mother Jones, and has written about the potential effects of the case, and the history behind the plaintiffs' case.
“They are teachers in California who are not union members but they still have to pay a portion of their wages to cover the cost of collective bargaining,” she said, “Most of them are members of a group called the Christian Educators Association International. That group is also a plaintiff in the case.”
According to Mencimer the association is right-wing group, which believes creationism should be taught and prayer should be allowed in schools. They are also opposed to any lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.
Mencimer said the group became interested in the California teacher’s union after the union donated money to the campaign opposing Proposition 8, which was the ballot measure that would have outlawed same-sex marriage, in California.
“So these teachers were really upset and felt like they were subsidizing a political institution they didn’t agree with,” she said.
However, the lead plaintiff in the case has said she did not have a problem with the pay or benefits the union was able to secure for her. She just disagrees with the union using money for political reasons, even though according to Mencimer contract negotiation money is completely separate from political money.
“The money that these plaintiffs pay does not go to support gay marriage,” she said, “It doesn’t have anything to do with politics. All it does is pay for collective bargaining.”
So, would a ruling against the California teachers’ union hurt Nevada?
The executive director of the Clark County Education Association, John Vellardita, which represents teachers of the fifth largest school district in the country said even if the Supreme Court ruled for the plaintiffs, unions will survive in Nevada.
He said unions work well in the state, even though it is a right to work state, meaning fees and union membership are not compulsory.
However, he was quick to point out that changes to the rules for unions could hurt the labor movement nationwide.
“I think just the last several years there’s been attacks on public employee unions,” he said, “It is a way to go after a revenue source for the Democratic Party. It’s another erosion of the political influence of the labor movement.”
He believes if there were any changes to union rules Nevada teachers would still organize because they see the benefit.
“The fact is there are enough teachers out there that feel that they have to be organized in order to make gains in the conditions of their employment,” he said.
As for how the Supreme Court is going to rule, Mencimer said it was clear that the conservative justices were probably not going to rule in favor of the unions. The swing vote may be Chief Justice John Roberts.
“Only because what the plaintiffs in this case are asking the court to do is overrule 40 years of precedents,” she said, “There has been this law in place that has worked essentially to keep labor peace when the unions has a good collective bargaining position and they have the money to hire people who know what they’re doing.”
Stephanie Mencimer, senior reporter, Mother Jones Washington Bureau; John Vellardita, executive director, Clark County Education Association