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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 1, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 14
Anti-union, anti-Gay appeal thwarted as SCOTUS splits 4-4

Friedrichs case would have defunded public sector unions
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Anti-union, anti-Gay appeal thwarted as SCOTUS splits 4-4

Friedrichs case would have defunded public sector unions

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

In a 4-4 split, on March 29 the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a legal challenge that could have crippled labor unions.

The case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association (CTA), was argued before the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia and labor activists feared the high court would decide against unions, but Scalia died before the justices voted on the case.

The even split on the Supreme Court means that a prior ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals - an outcome that favors unions - stands, but it does not create a binding precedent. 'The judgment [of the 9th Circuit] is affirmed by an equally divided Court,' the justices wrote in a brief, unsigned ruling.

Friedrichs v. CTA involves a complaint from 10 California teachers who claimed that having to pay a so-called 'agency fee' to a union forced them to help finance the union's political activities, which they did not support. This constituted a violation of their First Amendment rights, they charged.

Among the political activities the 10 plaintiffs did not support was the CTA's campaign against Prop 8, the 2008 ballot measure that temporarily abolished same-sex marriage in California.

'A lot of us were very offended by these [anti-Prop 8] advertisements,' lead plaintiff Rebecca Friedrichs said in a 2013 interview.

'We are on the opposite side of this debate and do not support efforts to make gay marriage legal. But the unions used our forced union dues to pay for all sorts of advertising to paint us with a broad brush to say we supported gay marriage when we did not. We didn't feel that it was right for our personal money to be taken and sent to support political campaigns set up to defeat something we were voting for.'

Under California labor law, public employees - including teachers, police officers, firefighters, and so on - can vote to designate a union as their exclusive representative for collective bargaining with their employer.

No public employee can be forced to join a union, but many of them do and pay dues to support union organizing.

Those who do not wish to join are still required to pay a smaller 'agency fee,' also known as a 'fair-share fee,' to the union to help fund union collective-bargaining functions.

The agency fee is meant to eliminate 'free rides,' where nonunion employees benefit from the union's representation, i.e., get higher wages and better benefits - without paying to support it. Twenty-two other states and the District of Columbia have similar labor laws on the books.

Unlike member dues, money from agency fees may not be used for the union's political purposes, and when the 9th Circuit Court heard Friedrichs' appeal, it rejected it in a brief two-page opinion.

The plaintiffs' case was 'so insubstantial as to not require further argument,' the 9th Circuit said.

The U.S. Supreme Court also upheld agency fees in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education in 1977. Nevertheless, the high court struck down similar fees for Illinois home health care workers in Harris v. Quinn in 2014.

During oral arguments in Friedrichs, five justices seemed inclined to overturn Abood altogether, with Scalia taking the lead in arguing against the union's position. His death left the conservative justices without their expected majority.

A decision that struck down agency fees would not, perhaps, have been fatal to organized labor, but it would have been a crippling blow. States that ended the agency fee system through legislative action have seen declines in union membership, especially states like Michigan and Wisconsin, which were once union strongholds.

More than one-third of U.S. public-sector employees belong to a union. CTA is one of the country's largest and most politically active teachers unions. It is affiliated with the NEA, the largest labor union in the United States.

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