by Rachel McPherson
Standing up to a large and powerful union may be a daunting thought to most people. But it’s a fight that California teacher Rebecca Friedrichs has waged and won.
In December, the Goldwater Institute hosted Friedrichs for a special Phoenix event to discuss her just-released book Standing Up to Goliath: Battling State and National Teachers’ Unions for the Heart and Soul of Our Kids and Country. In her book, Friedrichs describes how her local union turned its back on students and used dues money to fund political pursuits that she and many other of her fellow teachers disagreed with.
Interviewed by Goldwater Institute Vice President Christina Sandefur, Friedrichs shared many stories from her nearly 30 years of teaching. Earlier in her career, she tried to work within her teachers’ union to effect change—even becoming a union leader—but the longer she spent within the union, the more upset she became about the decisions being made. When she tried to speak up at union meetings, Friedrichs said, she was bullied.
So she began writing editorials and letters to the editor to expose these issues to the wider community, and before she knew it, she was the lead plaintiff in a case challenging her teachers’ union, argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. Friedrichs said of her experience at the nation’s highest court, “It was the weirdest thing—hearing my name being said in the U.S. Supreme Court. It was humbling and thrilling. To know that we had people outside cheering for us—there is nothing like it.”
Being catapulted into the national spotlight garnered Friedrichs a good deal of attention—and threats. As the face of a hot-button lawsuit, she worried for her and her family’s safety—but the support and encouragement of her husband, her two sons, and friends emboldened her to speak out and stand strong in the face of verbal attacks.
Friedrichs’ case ended in a split 4-4 decision due to the passing of Justice Antonin Scalia, but this would not be the end of the Court’s consideration of workers’ free-speech rights. In the 2017-18 term, the Court heard oral arguments in Janus v. AFSCME, in which Illinois state employee Mark Janus challenged his union for putting his mandatory union dues toward political speech he didn’t support. In a 5-4 decision issued last June, the Court ruled that public-sector employees cannot be compelled to pay union dues if they are not a member of the union.
This win for workers’ free-speech rights wouldn’t have been possible without the hard work and commitment of Rebecca Friedrichs. You can watch highlights from her Goldwater Institute event above, and to pick up a copy of her book, go here.
Rachel McPherson is a Ronald Reagan Fellow at the Goldwater Institute.