Public-sector unions across the country celebrated Tuesday when the United States Supreme Court announced it was unable to resolve a major challenge to organized labor, handing public-sector unions a major victory. At issue in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, was whether public-school teachers may be forced, as a condition of being employed by the government, to pay mandatory union fees, even when the teachers were not union members and did not support the union. The Court deadlocked 4-4 on the issue following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia earlier this year.
At oral argument in January, the court’s conservatives, Justice Scalia included, appeared ready to do away with decades-old precedent permitting this mandatory union fee scheme. Friedrichs and her lawyers argued, “Just as the government cannot compel political speech or association generally, it cannot mandate political speech or association as a condition of employment.” With the passing of Justice Scalia, the balance of this case likely shifted from 5-4 in Friedrichs' favor to an even 4-4 split. And, when the Court splits with no majority, the result is that the lower court ruling in the case is affirmed. Here, that means the California Teachers Association’s victory in the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit remains intact.
Accordingly, following Tuesday’s split decision, unions representing teachers and other public-sector employees can continue to collect compulsory dues to help fund collective bargaining. The logic is, because unions must negotiate on behalf of all public-sector employees, not just those who are union members, these individuals should not be able to “free-ride” on the dues of union members and benefit from the union’s successes during bargaining. Organized labor groups suggested that if the Court prohibited them from collecting dues from non-union members this would effectively cripple their ability to negotiate for, among other items, higher pay and better working conditions. The Court’s ruling does not change long-standing precedent that non-union members do not have to pay dues that go toward political activities such as lobbying or influencing policy.
Although Tuesday’s deadlock denied Friedrichs and others victory, the Court’s decision set no new precedent and left open the possibility for further challenges once the Supreme Court is back to full capacity with nine members. In fact, the Center for Individual Rights, a nonprofit law firm representing the plaintiffs, vowed to ask the Court to rehear the case once a new justice is appointed to replace Justice Scalia. “This is the kind of case that deserves the authority of the full court,” said Terry Pell, the Center’s president. “We are prepared to fight for every justice.”