On February 16, I wrote about a case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association that had been heard before the US Supreme Court that threatened the existence of trade unions because it challenged a long-standing 1977 precedent. That earlier case named Abood v. Detroit Board of Education allowed unions to collect fees from non-union members to cover the costs incurred in contract negotiations and enforcement that also benefited non-union members.
Opponents of unions, feeling that the Supreme Court was now ready to overturn Abood, had challenged this policy in court and had decided on a strategy of conceding defeat in the lower courts so that the case would be fast-tracked to the US Supreme Court where they expected a 5-4 verdict in their favor. Such a decision would have seriously harmed the trade union movement.
But then justice Scalia died and that meant a likely 4-4 split which meant that the lower court decisions, which the anti-union forces had conceded without a fight, would prevail. And sure enough that is what happened. Today the US Supreme Court issued a 4-4 verdict and as is the custom in such evenly split cases, no opinions were issued.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday split 4-4 on a conservative legal challenge to a vital source of funds for organized labor, affirming a lower-court ruling that allowed California to force non-union workers to pay fees to public-employee unions.
U.S. conservatives for years have tried to curtail the influence of unions representing public employees like police, firefighters and teachers that frequently back the Democratic Party and liberal causes.
A ruling allowing non-union workers to stop paying so-called “agency fees” equivalent to union dues, currently mandatory under laws in about half the 50 states including California, would have deprived public sector unions of millions of dollars a year, reducing their income and political power.
The decision means the status quo remains, with the unions able to collect fees from non-union workers.
So we have a case where what seemed like a clever strategy has backfired and those of us who support trade unions should celebrate.