Abood v. Detroit Board of Education

The legal issue addressed in the 1977 Supreme Court case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education was whether agency shop clauses violate the constitutional rights of government employees, including public school teachers, who do not believe the public sector should be unionized or who disagree with certain activities funded by their union through dues or service charges. The court found that such clauses cannot be used to force members to conform to particular ideologies if they disagree.

Facts of the Case

Agency shop clauses are those sections of collective bargaining agreements between employers and unions that compel employees to pay union dues, even if they are not union members. Agency shop clauses are usually included in collective bargaining agreements, because they help protect against a problem known as “free-riding,” a situation in which employees who are not union members benefit from union representation without contributing to the costs associated with union representation.
In a prior Supreme Court case, Railway Employes’ [sic] Department v. Hanson, the Court upheld the prevention of free-riding as a valid rationale for the inclusion of agency shop clauses in collective bargaining agreements. Abood was the first case in which the Supreme Court specifically addressed the issue of whether unions could use dues or service fee charges collected from nonunion employees to support ideological causes opposed by some employees.
In Abood, the collective bargaining agreement between the teachers’ union and the school board contained an agency shop clause that required every teacher in the school district to pay a service fee equivalent to union dues. Certain teachers objected to the union’s use of the service fees to support economic, religious, political, and other activities and programs of which they disapproved. According to the teachers, these particular activities and programs were outside the scope of collective bargaining, which specifically refers to issues surrounding the negotiation and administration of the collective bargaining agreement between the school district and the union. The teachers claimed that the union’s use of service fees for such activities and programs was a violation of both their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to freedom of association.

The Court’s Ruling

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that agency shop clauses do not violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments if the service fees are exclusively used to fund collective bargaining or activities and programs outside of collective bargaining to which nonunion employees do not object. Based on Abood, agency shop clauses cannot be sanctioned as a vehicle for unions to compel ideological conformity through the payment of service fees by public employees. The ideology in question need not be political but could be social, ethical, economic, or of some other type. Employees are legally permitted to disagree with their union’s ideology.
It is important to keep in mind that Abood is not a blanket prohibition of a union’s use of service fees for ideological causes. Rather, for example, following Abood, it is permissible for employees to oppose a union’s use of service fee contributions for one ideological cause while supporting union uses of their fees for other ideological causes that they do support.
As a direct result of Abood, public schools cannot condition the employment of teachers based on their support of union activities and programs outside the scope of collective bargaining. If public school teachers, for instance, refuse to endorse certain political candidates or tax cut plans, they can neither be compelled to contribute financially to the candidate or tax cut plan nor can they lose their jobs based on their lack of support for either the political candidate, tax plan, or both.
When teachers legally dispute a union’s use of service fees or union dues for ideological causes that are unrelated to collective bargaining, the challenge is usually based on the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Following Abood, when fashioning legal remedies, courts attempt to guard against compulsory subsidization of the ideological causes that parties object to while simultaneously ensuring that a union can require all teachers to pay the costs associated with the collective bargaining process.
Joseph Oluwole

See also Agency Shop; Collective Bargaining; Davenport v. Washington Education Association; Unions
Legal Citations
Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, 431 U.S. 209 (1977).
Railway Employes’ [sic] Department v. Hanson, 351 U.S. 225 (1956), reh’g denied, 352 U.S. 859 (1956).