In Win For Public Unions, US Supreme Court Deadlocks on Agency Shop Case

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In a closely watched case brought by 10 California teachers – the Supreme Court announced earlier today that it was deadlocked in a case of whether public workers should be required to support unions they have declined to join via a so-called ‘agency fee.’  The deadlock keeps intact the lower court decision that held the California Teachers Association has the right to charge fees to employees who do not join the union.  The Court issued a one-sentence statement saying the justices had split, 4-4, in the high-profile case. It did not reveal the votes of members.

The case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association (Case No. 14-915), tested a long-held position that all employees can be compelled to pay dues because they benefit from results of collective bargaining, regardless of whether they belong to a union. New Jersey is among the states that allow such blanket fees. A Supreme Court loss could have been devastating for the powerful New Jersey Education Association, the state AFL-CIO and other public-sector unions.

The basic idea is pretty straightforward.  Agency fees work like this: Public sector unions are required to cover all employees in a given bargaining unit, whether the employees opt into union membership or not. Public sector employees (which include EMTs, firefighters, public school teachers, social workers, and more) thus pay agency fees to their respective unions even if they are not union members, because public sector unions work on behalf of everyone in their bargaining unit, not just union members.  Agency fees do not fund unions’ political activities, but rather strictly the costs of union grievance-handling, organizing, and collective bargaining.

The Case

Plaintiff teachers were asking the Supreme Court to overrule a 1977 precedent in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.  Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977) upheld the right of public sector unions to extract agency fees from public sector workers, and found that agency fees do not violate employees’ freedom of speech, so long as they do not fund unions’ political activities.

Plaintiffs argued that their First Amendment speech rights were offended by the compelled fees.  Abood held that state interests in maintaining labor peace and eliminating free riders justified requiring non-members to pay such fees, which are also known as service fees or “fair share” fees.  Although the proportion of fee-payers in the 23 states that authorize such fees is relatively small, a decision against the unions would adversely impact union revenue.