‘Th’ Supreme Coort follows th’ election returns.” So said Mr. Dooley, the bartender created by cartoonist Finley Peter Dunne at the start of the 20th century. Those who follow the court today often say that nothing much has changed. Yet if the justices consider public opinion next term, it will be a straightforward decision in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a case challenging the California “union shop” law that levies an agency fee on all teachers who refuse to join a union.
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, defends the law on the grounds that “unions have a right to collect a fair share from the people [they] represent” regardless of whether the people want to pay, so that the AFT can “ensure that we’re able to speak for all workers.” But teacher Rebecca Friedrichs, the plaintiff, contends that collective bargaining is political speech. Thus the union shop denies her constitutional right of free speech by using her money to speak for purposes with which she disagrees.
The California law allows individual teachers to request a refund of the portion of their dues that is used to help elect candidates, lobby for union-sponsored legislation, or financially assist like-minded groups. Such costs run into hundreds of millions of dollars, nearly one-third of the dues unions ask school districts to collect. But each teacher still must pay the remaining two-thirds—the agency fee—that funds collective bargaining. Ms. Friedrichs argues that the act of bargaining with public officials is every bit as political as donating to political campaigns.
What does the public say? Judging by a recent survey, a plurality of the American public—indeed a decided majority of those with an opinion on the matter—seem to agree with Ms. Friedrichs. What’s more, an equally large share of teachers oppose the agency fees imposed upon them by California and about half of all states.
We gathered their thoughts in the ninth annual Education Next survey, which is administered by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance and will be released in full next month. The results arrived on our desk in June as the court was announcing it would hear Friedrichs.
We asked a representative sample of 3,300 members of the general public and approximately 700 teachers the following question: “In some states, all teachers must pay fees for union representation even if they choose not to join the union. Some say that all teachers should have to contribute to the union because they all get the pay and benefits the union negotiates with the school board. Others say teachers should have the freedom to choose whether or not to pay the union. Do you support or oppose requiring all teachers to pay these fees even if they do not join the union?” (To avoid stacking the deck, the order of the arguments for and against the policy were randomized.)
Only 34% of the public support agency fees, while 43% oppose them. The remaining 23% declined to take a position. If this latter group are put to one side, a clear majority, 56%, favor ending the union shop. That finding is consistent with the public’s overall opinion of teachers unions, we found—as only 30% say they have had a positive effect on schools and 39% say they have a negative effect.
The more startling results came from the teachers. Only 38% of teachers favor the agency fee, while 50% oppose it, with the remaining 13% expressing no opinion. In other words, 57% of teachers with an opinion on agency fees disagree with the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.
Union members make up 46% of our teacher sample, roughly equal to other national estimates of teachers-union membership. Only 52% of these union teachers like the agency fee, a percentage that plummets to 25% among nonunion teachers.
These findings should not be extrapolated to say that teachers are turning against their unions more generally. Fifty-seven percent think the unions have had a positive effect on schools, and only a quarter think they have had a negative impact. But teachers do seem to agree with Ms. Friedrichs that they should be able to decide whether to contribute money to cover collective-bargaining costs.
The Supreme Court should ignore political pressures and decide Friedrichs on the merits. But if, as many suspect, political realities influence jurisprudence as often today as they did in Mr. Dooley’s time, justices should note that any judgment that concludes Ms. Friedrichs’s rights were violated will not constitute an affront to public—or even teacher—opinion.
Mr. Peterson, a professor of government at Harvard University, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. Mr. West is an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. They are the director and deputy director of Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, which administers the Education Next survey.