April 2, 2016
By Linda Ocasio
New York, NY – Public-sector unions survived a serious threat on March 29 when the U.S. Supreme Court deadlocked over a challenge by conservatives to the fair-share fees that public-sector unions collect from non-members.
“The union victory in the Friedrichs case demonstrates the critical importance of the Supreme Court,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew. “The corporate interests that created and backed the Friedrichs case will continue their efforts to undermine unions, working people and the country’s middle class. We have to do all we can to ensure that the next Supreme Court Justice does not tilt the court in their direction.”
Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association was a closely watched case that was specially crafted to debilitate public-sector unions by sabotaging their funding structure. The challenge was instigated by the Center for Individual Rights, an organization financed by the Koch brothers and other anti-union groups. The center, working with the law firm it engaged, cold-called California teachers until they found 10 teachers willing to front the challenge as plaintiffs. The lawsuit argued that the union’s collection of fair-share fees violated non-members’ First Amendment free-speech rights.
The center pushed the Friedrichs case through the lower courts, asking for the court at each step to apply the existing case law and rule against it, to speed its way to the high court. The center was spurred by Justice Samuel Alito’s signal in other decisions that the Supreme Court was ready to review the 1977 precedent that upheld the right of public-sector unions to collect fair-share fees. It usually takes a case seven years to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, but Friedrichs got there in a year and a half with essentially no case record.
When the case was heard, Justice Antonin Scalia equated public-sector collective bargaining — including pay and benefits — with political speech, prompting some court-watchers to speculate that the high court appeared poised to rule 5-4 against the unions.
But with Scalia’s death in February, the conservative majority dissolved. In issuing a 4-4 ruling, the court simply stated that the 1977 precedent “is affirmed by an equally divided court.”
The arena of battle now shifts to the decision over who succeeds Scalia on the Supreme Court. The Republicans have refused to hold hearings on Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nominee.
“If the Republicans continue to stonewall, the next president will make the appointment,” said Mulgrew in an email message to members. “That’s why we must do everything in our power to ensure a Democrat wins the White House in November.”