Public sector unions had a win today when the US Supreme Court split 4-4 in a closely watched case that threatened to undermine the collective bargaining process.
The case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, centered around whether public sector unions could collect “fair share fees” from non-union members. Once a majority of workers vote to be represented by a public sector union, the union must represent all workers, even non-union members. The fair share fees, therefore, prevent non-union members from receiving the benefits of the union’s collective bargaining process without contributing to the cost of providing those benefits. No fair share fees can be used for any other purpose, including political activities.
The Supreme Court’s even split means that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling in favor of the California Teachers Association will stand.
By challenging public sector unions’ collection of fair share fees, the plaintiffs in the case – supported by conservative Center for Individual Rights – directly sought to overturn the Supreme Court’s 1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which held that fair share fees were constitutional. According to labor rights advocates, overturning Abood would weaken the ability of unions to negotiate fair pay and safe workplaces and could reduce union membership. The National Education Association called the case a “thinly veiled attempt to weaken collective bargaining and silence educators’ voices.”
California Teachers Association President Eric C. Heins welcomed the 4-4 decision: “The Supreme Court today rejected a political ploy by the wealthy corporate special interests backing this case to make it harder for working families and the middle class to come together, speak up and get ahead.”
Importantly, the Supreme Court’s even split does not set any national precedent on the issue of fair share fees and may mean that whomever is next appointed to the Supreme Court will decide the fate of Abood and public sector unions. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia currently have laws allowing unions to collect fair share fees that support collective bargaining.
Media Resources: Supreme Court of the United States 3/29/16; The Atlantic 3/29/16; National Education Association 3/29/16; Feminist Newswire 1/12/16