by Jennifer Tiedemann
Rebecca Friedrichs has been educating elementary school kids in Orange County, California, for nearly three decades. From the first time she stepped in a classroom, she’s loved passing along knowledge to her students and getting them started on the right path.
But after years of privately questioning her teachers’ union, she began speaking out publicly—and before she knew it, she was leading a fight that would take her all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. With the Supreme Court set to rule on the similar case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, in which a state government employee in Illinois is challenging mandatory payments to unions, Friedrichs’ story and experience is particularly relevant today.
Rebecca’s first brush with union intransigence came when she was a brand-new, 22-year-old teacher. She observed another teacher getting in her students’ faces and yelling at them—behavior that, in Rebecca’s eyes, bordered on abuse. When she shared her concerns with her master teacher and asked what could be done, Rebecca explains, “My master teacher sat me down and said ‘Rebecca, today’s the day you learn about teachers unions and teacher tenure.’ And then I later learned that it’s teacher tenure in conjunction with collectively bargained grievance procedures that quite literally tie the hands of administrators so they can’t get rid of people like this woman who abused the children.” Instead of facing discipline for her actions, that teacher remained in the classroom until her retirement. Meanwhile, Rebecca says, “all those kids were just out of luck for all those years.”
But this wasn’t acceptable to Rebecca, and so she tried to voice her thoughts as a member—and leader—of her local union. “I’d go to speak to school board members speaking to other teachers, and everyone agreed that there was a problem, but everyone was too afraid to stand up to the union. So I even became a union leader. I served as a representative on my campus, and then I served on the administrative board for my local union.” Unfortunately, she says, it didn’t make any difference. “Even as a full member in good standing serving as a leader, I was totally voiceless, because I would bring the concerns of my fellow teachers to the union leadership and I was told ‘too bad.’”
Furthermore, the union was spending dues money on political aims with which Rebecca and many of her fellow teachers did not agree. When she tried to push back, the union would have none of it. “They would bully us, call us names, tell us that their politics were the only right way.” So after 25 years of teaching—and 25 years of trying to express her concerns to her union—Rebecca decided it was time to take new action. She decided to begin submitting op-eds to her local newspaper, explaining how her union was using educators like her “to fund a social and political agenda behind our backs and against our will.” While she met with rejection numerous times, she started to gain a platform for her point of view—and more people began to pay attention to what she had to say.
Within six months of her taking on this more public role, she became the lead plaintiff in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. In the lawsuit, she joined with nine other California public school teachers in challenging “forced unionism,” as she puts it. “We just argued that teachers and all public sector workers should be able to decide for ourselves without fear or coercion whether or not to fund or join a union. That was it.” After the district court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Friedrichs and her fellow teachers appealed to the nation’s highest court, which took the case and heard oral arguments in early 2016.
Though many expected the Supreme Court to side with Rebecca, her case ended in a split 4-4 decision following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, meaning public employees could still continue to be forced to fund political activities they don’t support.
But while Rebecca’s case did not end with her desired outcome, the Supreme Court now has another opportunity to rule on whether speech can be compelled. Before the end of June, the Court will hand down a ruling in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). In this case, Mark Janus, a child support specialist working for the Illinois state government, was forced to pay dues to his union, even though he didn’t agree with the policies the union was supporting. So by forcing him to pay member fees, his union was violating his right not to speak—an integral part of Americans’ First Amendment rights. In December 2017, the Goldwater Institute joined with organizations in California, Massachusetts, and elsewhere, to file an amicus brief in the Janus case.
Should the Court side with Mark Janus, it would strike a major blow to compelled speech—and given the similarities to her own case, Rebecca is eagerly awaiting the ruling (she herself submitted a brief supporting Janus). But to Rebecca, a win in the Janus case would not be the end of the road, but rather an important step in a continuing journey. “Mark’s case is just the first domino. We have so many more fights ahead of us to truly free workers,” she explains.
For Rebecca, those fights require that she remain active and vocal about the failures of public sector unions. Rebecca will soon release a book about her experiences, in which she will tell the stories of parents, teachers, and students who have been negatively affected by the actions—and inaction—of teachers’ unions. Through her book, she hopes to bring together teachers, parents, students, citizens, and policymakers to have a real conversation about how to truly improve schools. (For more information about the book, visit forkidsandcountry.org.)
In the meantime, Rebecca will remain on the front lines of the fight to let teachers and other public employees stand up to their unions. While her public role can pose challenges, she knows it’s all worth it: “I’ve been teaching for a long time. I’ve taught 28 years and now I’m ‘oh, that teacher that took the unions to court, can’t talk to her,’” she says. “So it changed a lot for me, but I know I did the right thing and I’m continuing that battle.”
Jennifer Tiedemann is the communications manager at the Goldwater Institute.