Ten California teachers and the Christian Educators Association have sued the California Teachers Association in a case that could eliminate public employee unions’ right to collect fees from all workers. Many observers believe that the case, to be argued before the Supreme Court this fall, could seriously undermine public sector unions nationwide.

So who are the teachers who want to take down their union?

Rebecca Friedrichs. (Photo by Christi Ransom) Rebecca Friedrichs. (Photo by Christi Ransom)

One of them is Rebecca Friedrichs, the lead plaintiff in the case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. She also is a 28-year veteran of elementary-school classrooms in Orange County. Another is Harlan Elrich, who teaches near Fresno and has been teaching for nearly 30 years.

Both of them say that they decided to become plaintiffs because they don’t want to support a politically powerful union with which they frequently disagree. Current law allows them to opt out of paying for the union’s political activities — about 30 percent to 40 percent of annual dues. But they must continue to pay “agency fees,” which support the union’s collective bargaining activities.

[California teachers unions face new challenge over dues]

The plaintiffs are asking the Supreme Court to strike down public sector unions’ right in California (and 25 other states) to collect agency fees. Unions say that doing so would create a class of “free riders” who benefit from union representation but don’t pay for it.

Harlan Elrich. (Photo by Jill Ellingson) Harlan Elrich. (Photo by Jill Ellingson)

“We feel strongly that they should pay their fair share for their representation that they’re receiving and continuing to take advantage of,” said Frank Wells, a spokesman for the California Teachers Association.

[Related: California court rules teacher tenure creates impermissible unequal conditions]

Friedrichs and Elrich each agreed to interviews with The Washington Post; they were interviewed separately. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you become a teacher?

Friedrichs: I love imparting knowledge. I love watching little kids get that sparkle in their eye and that smile on their face when they get it. When I was a little kid I always felt like adults didn’t explain things very well and I was always lost.

Elrich: Up until college I never wanted to be a teacher. My father was a teacher and I watched him and said “I never want to do that.” In college I started tutoring math and my friends said I was good at it. They said “Why don’t you be a teacher?” I said “okay.”

What have your experiences been with your union?

Friedrichs: When I was a student teacher in 1987, I was being trained by an outstanding master teacher, but next door to us was a teacher who had become, in my opinion, abusive to her little first graders. I would witness every day as she would be lining them up outside the classroom. She’d grab them by the arms, she’d yank them over, she’d yell right in their faces. I asked my master teacher, “What can we do about this awful situation?” She sat me down and she said, “Today is your lesson on the teachers union.” She told me about tenure and that districts really struggle to rid themselves of these teachers. And I was shocked.

At that point I was really soured on union representation.

In my third or fourth year of teaching, the whole idea of vouchers came up here in California. We had to go to mandatory staff meetings, and during those meetings the union would come in and basically tell us how they want us to vote and be boots on the ground for their side of the campaign. They came in telling us about the evils of vouchers.

I started studying up on it.

At the next staff meeting, they were passing the paper around to sign up for phone banking and going door to door. When it came to me, I tried to be respectful. I said I’m leaning toward vouchers, they might be a good idea.

My union rep right there in front of everybody called me a radical right winger for daring to not stand against vouchers. I was trying to follow my conscience and I was abused for that. That whole school year I was shunned and treated like a second-class citizen.

(Wells, the CTA spokesman, said he couldn’t comment on Friedrichs’ experiences, but he said any claim that schools can’t fire “abusive” teachers is untrue. “California law establishes a process for removing those people and the CTA has worked to streamline that process,” he said.)

Elrich: I never even gave the union a second thought up until a number of years ago. I was a member of the union just because in California you always are. Then I received a call from someone in the union prior to a major election. They were doing a survey of educators, asking if the election was held tomorrow, would you vote for so-and-so. Every single issue and candidate I said no.

At that point I started wondering, what does the union represent and what am I putting my money into?
I realized much of what the union does goes against my beliefs.

Recently in California they had the vote on same-sex marriages. I am against same-sex marriages, and from my understanding the union put a lot of money into supporting them. And they have put money into many Democratic candidates, all the way up to presidential elections — candidates I do not support.
I never knew I could opt out until a few years ago.

Rebecca Friedrichs, at one point you decided to try to change the union from the inside. What did you do?

Friedrichs: Around 2006 and 2007, we’d been having a lot of low morale issues in our district. I decided to serve on my union’s executive board as secretary for our local. Every month, I would bring up the same question: The teachers I’m representing and myself, we’re concerned about a lot of the things going on with our union. We’re concerned about tenure, we’re forced to fund politics against our will. Every time I would bring these things up I would just get shrugged shoulders from our union executive board. They wouldn’t even give me a response.

So at what point did you decide that you weren’t going to be able to change the union the way you wanted to?

Friedrichs: I think it was 2008 or 2009, during the big crash of our economy. There were these outstanding newer teachers in our district. The kids loved them, the parents loved them, they were good teachers, doing an outstanding job. They weren’t tenured yet.

We find out that these teachers are all going to be pink-slipped, which means they’re going to lose their jobs. At the next meeting I said look, the economy is tanking, the parents in this district are losing their jobs, they’re taking huge pay cuts. I said I think that we should consider going to our district negotiations and offering like a 2 to 3 percent pay cut. I think our community would appreciate it. I also thought we could save the jobs of these teachers.

They looked at me and said oh no way, the teachers will never go for a pay cut. I said how do you know if you don’t ask them?

They would not go to the teachers. They would not put out a survey, would not even ask them would they be willing to take a pay cut.

This is what I was told by our union leader: Rebecca, don’t worry about those teachers losing their jobs. The union is going to offer a seminar on how they can obtain unemployment benefits. I swear my jaw dropped. I said are you kidding me? They’ve been paying $1,000 a year to this union and that’s all we’re going to do for them?

That’s when I decided to become an agency fee payer again because I knew from personal experience that no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t make a difference, even with a voice.

(Wells, the CTA spokesman, said that union members can’t expect that they will see eye to eye with the union on every matter. “Every time you disagree you don’t get to take your marbles and go home,” he said.)

You have opted out of the portion of union dues that goes to political activities. You’re just paying for the union’s collective bargaining activities, which directly benefits you. But you say that you’re still subsidizing the union’s political speech. Explain that. 

Friedrichs: Here in California, most public officials have been put into office by union dollars. So you’ve put them into office and now you come to the bargaining table. The official you put into office is one side and the union is on the other side and you’re bargaining for taxpayer money, only the taxpayer doesn’t get invited to the table. That’s political, in my opinion.

Collective bargaining is being used to push for things that I would never agree to.

We have this huge pension crisis in our country and they keep pushing for these defined-benefit plans. I’d be happy with a defined contribution plan. We’re being asked to fund collective bargaining that’s highly political using taxpayer money and I don’t have a choice.

Elrich: I believe they’re using my money for politics, whether they say they are or not. I just think they’re putting my money into other things besides the negotiations and they call it collective bargaining.

I don’t feel good about it. Pretty much everything the union does is political.

They put a lot of money into negotiating for higher and higher salaries for teachers, and in the town that I’m teaching in, I think teachers are some of the highest paid, other than some doctors. I’m for a decent salary but I think we get paid well already compared to everyone else out there in this community.

What’s the teachers’ lounge like for you these days? How are you treated?

Friedrichs: When I took this on I thought I would be shunned, but I knew I was doing the right thing and I have been pleasantly surprised that many, many teachers, they won’t say it in public but they take me into a quiet room or they’ll send me a quiet e-mail to my home, and they thank me and they hug me. I’ve had very little pushback.

Elrich: I don’t go to a teachers lounge. In my department there are a number of people that are strongly for the union and have basically voiced to me, hey, if you win, unions will be weakened. I don’t feel like I’ve been blackballed or anything on my campus, and a number of people who have found out about it  … they’re on my side. There are a lot of people on my campus that are in favor of what we’re doing.

In your mind, how would teachers advocate for better wages and better working conditions if they’re not organized into a union?

Friedrichs: Unions are not going to go out of business over this. Unions will still have full monopoly bargaining power. They’ll still be there in the schools. The only difference I see is that workers will have a choice. If teachers see that a union is good, they’ll join. If they feel like me and they’re troubled in their conscience, they won’t join. To me, it’s a liberty issue.

Elrich: I’m not against the union per se. I’m against them making me join. I know a number of people on my campus here have said if you win, the unions will be weakened. I don’t believe that. I believe that if the unions were to go away, I believe that we as a community of teachers could do negotiating for ourselves for salaries.

You really don’t think that public employee unions will be worse off if you win this case? 

Friedrichs: I don’t think it would weaken unions. It would just give workers a choice, and if the unions give the workers what they want, they’d still be strong. If the unions are actually forced to listen to their members, what’s wrong with that? That’s a great thing. It’s hard for me to describe. I just want liberty. I want to stop this silencing of my voice and the silencing of millions of teachers out there.

Elrich: I think this would force the unions to come to the school and talk to teachers individually and say “Would you like to join?” We don’t have a say, and that’s one of the things I don’t appreciate about it.

Getting the the benefits of the union’s collective bargaining efforts without paying anything to support the union — some people call that freeloading.

Friedrichs: I’ve never asked the union to represent me in the first place. They’re the ones who asked for laws to give them this authority to negotiate on behalf of everybody.

Elrich: There are enough people who believe in the union that it will stay strong. Does that make me a freeloader? I don’t believe so.