SAN CLEMENTE (CBSLA.com) — The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments in a case that could have a dramatic effect on teachers and hundreds of thousands of other unionized public employees.

Ten California teachers are challenging their unions.

CBS2/KCAL9’s Dave Bryan reports the case has ignited a heated debate.

Veteran Orange County elementary school teacher Rebecca Friedrichs was once a teachers union board member in her local district. Now, she doesn’t hide the fact that she doesn’t care for the union.

“I believe the unions have been free-riding off of me, and teachers like me, for decades. And I have a big problem with that,” Friedrichs said.

“They’re powerful, they’re entrenched and they’re really more focused on their own self-preservation than on doing what’s right for their members, and in this case, on educating and protecting children.”

Now, Friedrichs’ complaints about teachers unions are heading to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the case which bears her name, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, she and several other teachers from Orange County claim they’re being forced to pay fees to the union for collective bargaining costs against their will, violating their free-speech rights.

Terry Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights, is representing the teachers.

“Some teachers agree with the union, and they should be free to join it and support it,” Pell said. “But individuals who fundamentally disagree with the union’s position, whether it’s for higher salaries at a time of economic contraction, or whether it’s to create school reform, they should be free to not join the union, not have to pay dues. And that’s what we’re fighting for in this case,” Pell said.

Among those who argued the Supreme Court should not hear the case because the plaintiffs allegations had no merit was the office of California Attorney General Kamala Harris.

But it’s the teachers unions and other unions representing public sector employees who have the most to lose if the court strikes down the mandatory fees paid by teachers who choose not to belong to the unions.

Some experts believe this may be a life and death struggle for public-sector unions.

Six of those unions, including the California Teachers Association, the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State County and Municipal employees, released a statement that reads: “We are disappointed … The Supreme Court has chosen to take a case that threatens the fundamental promise of America – that if you work hard and play by the rules you should be able to provide for your family and live a decent life.”

The unions point out the Friedrichs and the other teachers who are suing are already paying a reduced fee, which only covers their share of the cost of negotiating new contracts. And some union supporters charge they’re trying to get something for nothing.

Friedrichs says this is about freedom of choice.

“I would like to see teachers be given a choice to choose for themselves, without any fear, and without coercion, whether or not to fund a union. That’s it,” Friedrichs said.

But the coalition of unions that oppose the lawsuit firmly disagrees, stating: “The Supreme Court is revisiting decisions that have made it possible for people to stick together for a voice at work and in their communities for more than 35 years.”

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