On Tuesday we witnessed the full impact of the unexpected loss of Justice Antonin Scalia who died February 13. The U.S. Supreme Court rendered a 4-4 decision on a challenge to organized labor, giving unions a major victory in a case they had previously seemed certain to lose.
The deadlocked decision in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association upheld a lower court ruling dealing with union fees and is a substantial setback for union foes. Lyle Denniston writing for SCOTUS blog provides an opinion analysis.
A decision in favor of the petitioners would have eliminated what’s known as agency fees –– money paid to unions by non-union members.
Plaintiffs in the case argued that agency fees presented a “significant impingement” on their First Amendment rights of free speech and free association, since collective bargaining is unarguably political. In negotiating with school boards, for example, unions can take positions on issues such as tenure that nonmembers may not support, so teachers who decide not to join the local union should not have to contribute to those costs.
The California Teachers Association and its parent union, the NEA, argued that the fees are not a violation of First Amendment rights because a portion is reimbursed annually, claiming the money covers things that benefit non-union members.
In 1977, the Supreme Court’s decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, held that no one can be forced to join a union or contribute to its political activities, but that teachers unions can charge nonmembers a fee to cover the costs of nonpolitical activities, oddly including collective bargaining.
In recent years, public sector unions have experienced numerous setbacks, with Republican governors and state legislatures successfully challenging collective bargaining — even in Michigan and Wisconsin, regarded as longtime labor strongholds.
The Friedrichs case was not the first to challenge union fees. Last year, in Harris v. Quinn, the justices ruled 5-4, that Medicaid home health workers were not full public employees and therefore could not be compelled to pay collective bargaining union fees –– a decision that many Supreme Court watchers viewed as a sign the court seemed poised to overturn the precedent set by Abood.
Open Secrets (Center for Responsive Politics) reveals the $19.2 million the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, teachers unions contributed in the 2012 elections and their continuing donations in 2016. Democrats and liberal groups are their favored beneficiaries. Since 1989, the NEA has been the fourth biggest donor out of all organizations tracked by CRP.