Supreme Court Hands Labor Unions a Reprieve

In the second split decision since the passing of Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court gave organized labor a status quo victory in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association on Tuesday.

The case was brought by the Center for Individual Rights on behalf of ten California public schoolteachers. At issue in the case is whether a system of “agency fees” for non-union teachers violates the First Amendment. California is one of many states where public employees who chose not to join unions must pay a “fair share service fee.” The fees, also known as agency fees, are usually equivalent to union dues and help pay for collective bargaining activities. The theory behind the law is that non-union members profit from union activities, in the form of higher wages, better benefits, leave policies and grievance procedures.

The per curiam opinion, noting only that “judgment is affirmed by an equally divided court,” set no precedent, and the issue may be revisited by a full court in the future. For now, the decision leaves intact the 1977 Supreme Court ruling in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. In that case, the Court ruled that non-union members can be compelled to pay for a union’s collective bargaining efforts, but not its political activities.

The case is likely to heat up the standoff between the Obama administration and Senate Republicans, who vowed to hold no hearings on any Supreme Court nominees until after the election.