Maryland labor leaders expressed concern Tuesday after the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case challenging the right of government worker unions to collect fees from nonmembers — a move that could undermine the unions' financial footing.
Opponents of such fees say they violate the First Amendment by forcing government workers to subsidize unions they do not want to join. The argument could have a receptive audience among the court's conservative members, who have openly questioned the precedent the court set four decades ago allowing the fees.
If the court rules against the fees in the case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, unions across the nation would stand to lose a substantial amount of money, which would limit how much they can spend to support candidates. In Maryland, for example, the union that represents state government employees brings in $2.75 million annually in fees from nonmembers.
"I think a lot of members are concerned," said Jeff Pittman, a spokesman for AFSCME Maryland, which represents the state's 20,000 government employees in collective bargaining.
Pittman and other union officials in Maryland said well-funded efforts by conservatives such as Charles and David Koch, the billionaire industrialists, were attacking the fees in an orchestrated assault on unions. "I think it's more about the Koch brothers and their ilk trying to take away the rights of workers," Pittman said.
Previous rulings have allowed public worker unions in California and 20 other states to collect "fair share" fees from all employees, even if those employees do not join or support the union. Though the Supreme Court has said workers are not required to pay for a union's political activities, it concluded that they should contribute a fair share toward the union's cost of negotiating wages and benefits for everyone.
The court's conservatives have long questioned whether these forced fees violate free-speech protections because they require some employees to support a union they oppose.
"This is a very significant case. It may well be life or death for the unions," said Professor Benjamin Sachs of Harvard Law School. "Unions are required to represent everyone. And this could mean nobody has an obligation to pay."
Some workers in Maryland hope that will happen.
Donald Keener, 38, a math teacher at Kenwood High School in Baltimore County, hopes the Supreme Court will rule that teachers should not be forced to pay fees to a union.
"Once one state's law falls, the others will fall, too," Keener said. "We can't be forced to join a union."
In 2011 the Maryland General Assembly approved the Fair Share Act, which gave the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees the right to collect fees from nonmembers. In the first year after the law was enacted, the group held a vote among state workers — 10,000 AFSCME members and 9,900 nonmembers — to ratify the union's right to collect the fees, and 89 percent supported the measure.
In late 2014, another vote resulted in 95 percent of state workers approving the fees. Union membership has grown to 12,600, while the number of nonmembers paying fees fell to 7,400.
"We've been aggressively asking people to join us," Pittman said.
Union leaders have explained the benefits of membership while also explaining the difference in the fees paid by members and nonmembers. Members pay $15.63 per pay period, which generates $5 million; Nonmembers pay $14.29, which generates $2.75 million.
The money from nonmembers helps cover the costs of negotiating contracts as well as enforcing the deals and protecting the rights of members and nonmembers alike. Workers who do not want to support political activities do not have to join the union; they pay lower fees.
"If you don't want to pay for the lobbying, you don't have to pay for that. You're only paying for the benefits you get from collective bargaining," Pittman said.
Workers can also opt out of paying any fees to satisfy religious or political beliefs. About 200 state workers have opted out.
Under state law, Maryland's 24 school districts must allow unions to bargain over the right to charge fees to nonmembers. In 11 counties, including Baltimore County, nonmembers are required to pay fees to unions, which are less than full dues.
Adam Mendelson, a spokesman for the Maryland State Education Association, the union representing 71,000 public school teachers and other school employees, said most teachers understand the reason for the fees.
"I think educators have a good sense of what the benefits are," Mendelson said. "Statewide, 85 percent of teachers are members of MSEA. That shows a broad understanding."
He, too, pointed to anti-labor organizations as driving this issue to the Supreme Court as part of a coordinated push to weaken unions.
"At a time when inequality is on the rise and the middle class is on the ropes, it's disappointing" that the Supreme Court would agree to hear the case, he said.
Abby Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, or TABCO, agreed.
Beytin, whose group represents 8,300 workers, said, "It's driven by the likes of the Koch brothers who want to undermine workers' rights. This is more than just an issue for the public school teachers. It's an issue for our country. If all the unions go away, who is going to be there for the workers?"
The Koch brothers have used their wealth from Koch Industries, a giant, privately held energy and forest products conglomerate, to fund libertarian and conservatives causes such as the Tea Party. They've been criticized for supporting anti-union efforts, particularly in Wisconsin, where they backed Gov. Scott Walker as he worked to end collective bargaining for state workers. The low-profile Kochs have said little about these efforts, though David Koch acknowledged in a rare interview to spending to curb union power.
By law, TABCO has to represent all teachers, not just members of the union. The union will represent nonmembers who have contract disputes and other issues related to working conditions. She credited the union with securing a 5 percent pay raise next year.
Keener is not a TABCO member and has successfully challenged his fee two years in a row. So has his wife, Katie Keener, a first-grade teacher at Dundalk Elementary.
The union has reimbursed them rather than fighting for the $600 annual fee. Members pay $800.
Donald Keener and another Baltimore County teacher have hired Milton Chappell, a lawyer with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, to explore filing a federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of teachers who object to paying the fees to unions.
"We think the First Amendment dictates that someone should not be forced to subsidize a union's private speech as a condition to work for the government," said Patrick Semmens, a spokesman for the foundation.
If the Supreme Court strikes down the California Teachers Association fee structure for nonmembers, "that would apply to every government employee in America," he said.