Unions spared, for now, in split Supreme Court Friedrichs ruling

Today, the Supreme Court, by way of an equally divided ruling, ended the fiercest legal attack on the labor movement in decades.

In a tersely-worded decision, the Court announced that the ruling of the Ninth Circuit rejecting an effort to defund public sector unions was “affirmed” by “an equally divided court.”

The result: Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association is as dead, for now, as Justice Antonin Scalia.

The anti-union forces pressed the case in the California courts expecting to lose there but later win at the Supreme Court. When arguments were heard in January, just before Scalia’s death, it appeared their strategy was about to pay off. At the time, the outcome for unions looked dim as all indications from oral arguments and the questions from the bench pointed toward a victory for the plaintiffs.

Those hopes were dashed, however, with the passing of Justice Scalia which left the 5-4 conservative-leaning court split down the middle, 4-4.

The specifics of the case involved the obligation of non-members to compensate unions for services like bargaining and grievance-filing performed on their behalf. Unions, by law, are required to bargain on behalf of every worker in a union shop – including those who do not belong to the union as dues-paying members. These workers who do not pay dues then enjoy the same higher wages and benefits enjoyed by their co-workers who do pay.

To mitigate this “free rider” problem, contracts often require non-union members to pay a portion of the costs of bargaining for the benefits they receive. These are referred to as “agency fees” or “fair share service fees.”

The anti-worker National Right-to-Work (RTW) Committee funded the dissenting California teachers who sued in the California courts. Those dissenters claimed that agency fees violated their free speech rights.

Had the RTW committee, Rebecca Friedrichs, and the other complainers won, every state and local worker would potentially be a free rider, depriving unions of millions of dollars they need to defend all workers. Lower federal courts sided with the teachers’ association.

The RTW committee’s ultimate aim is to destroy the nation’s unions by defunding them, thus abolishing union opposition to their right-wing agenda, a point their lawyer, Michael Carvin, evaded when the justices questioned him in January. The RTW group had no comment.

“Labor unions victorious,” the California Teachers Association headlined its breaking news story on the case. The state of California, defending its own law, had joined with CTA and other unions in opposing the RTW group and its Friedrichs case.

California Labor Federation Executive Secretary-Treasurer Art Pulaski agreed with these sentiments, but warned the battle isn’t over yet.

“Today’s Supreme Court decision…upholding lower court rulings that educators and other public servants have the right to a strong union in the workplace, is a momentous victory for working people,” Pulaski said.

“The court rightly upheld 40 years of precedent, rejecting the attacks by deep-pocketed corporate special interests that were the driving force behind the Friedrichs case. While this is an important win for workers, we know the fight isn’t over. Unions will continue the important work of organizing and mobilizing to beat back these attacks while aggressively pursuing real, lasting gains for workers that open up a path to the American dream for everyone.”

Lily Eskelsen-García, the president of the National Education Association (which includes the California Teachers Association), said, “The Supreme Court today rejected a political ploy to silence public employees like teachers, school bus drivers, cafeteria workers, higher education faculty and other educators to work together to shape their profession.”

“In Friedrichs, the court saw through the political attacks on the workplace rights of teachers, educators and other public employees. This decision recognizes that stripping public employees of their voices in the workplace is not what our country needs,” she added.

The NEA called the case a “thinly veiled attempt to weaken collective bargaining and silence educators’ voices.”

If the decision had gone in favor of the plaintiffs – which in addition to Friedrichs and RTW included the anti-labor Center for Individual Rights – it could have set the stage for a nationwide expansion of right-to-work and stripped unions of not only their leverage in the workplace, but also a significant chunk of their funding.

Beyond the significance of this case for the particular parties involved in it, the ruling today also underlines the importance of the struggle now taking place around the filling of the Supreme Court vacancy left by the death of Scalia. If President Obama succeeds in filling the vacancy, a liberal judge would likely prevent further attacks on the right of unions to collect these fees.

If a future Republican president fills the vacancy, however, the labor movement could see a complete reversal of today’s victory in a future re-match.

Photo: Scalia.  |  Josh Reynolds/AP


John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.