Blog: The Educated Reporter

Teachers’ Unions Survive Supreme Court Challenge Due to a Deadlocked Vote

The U.S. Supreme Court deadlocked on a case that would have set new limits on how unions collect fees from potential members. (Flickr/Beatrice Murch via Creative Commons)

The U.S. Supreme Court deadlocked on a case that would have rewritten the rules for how teachers’ unions — and other public employee groups – are allowed to collect fees from non-members.  

Opponents sought to overturn a 1977 Supreme Court court ruling that allowed unions to collect so-called “fair share fees,” even from potential members who didn’t otherwise support the group. As Education Week put it recently, the case was “a big deal” for the future of unions in many states, including California where the case originated. 

A ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was affirmed by default with the 4-4 Supreme Court vote. The National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers’ union, was quick to spin this as a more clear-cut victory.

“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,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia in a statement. 

Here’s a first-rate primer from NPR’s Nina Totenberg on how the “fair share fees” work in the 23 states that allow it:

If a majority of the public employees at a given site vote to be represented by a union, that union becomes the exclusive bargaining agent for the workers. In California, some 325,000 teachers in more than 1,000 school districts are represented by the California Teachers Association and, to a lesser extent, the California Federation of Teachers.

Of those, 9 percent have not joined the union, but under California law, any union contract must cover them too, and so they are required to pay an amount that covers the costs of negotiating the contract and administering it. The idea is that they reap the bread-and-butter benefits covered by the contract — wages, leave policies, grievance procedures, etc. — so they should bear some of the cost of negotiating that contract.

They do not, however, have to pay for the union’s lobbying or political activities; they can opt out of that by signing a one-page form.

The justices had the option to reschedule the case to next term but instead left it with the tie vote. That means a prior ruling by U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit — which upheld the fees policy — stands. 

From USA Today’s Supreme Court reporter Richard J. Wolf:

That was a major victory for the unions and the court’s four liberal justices following Justice Antonin Scalia’s death last month. During oral argument in January, it had appeared almost certain that the court would strike down the requirement in 23 states that teachers and government workers contribute to the cost of collective bargaining, even if they disagree with their unions’ demands.

It’s worth noting that Bellwether Education Partners co-founder Andy Rotherham predicted this outcome in his Eduwonk Blog back in mid-February:

You really couldn’t find anyone on any side of the issue who thought the unions were going to win the Friedrichs case over mandatory union dues. Close court watchers and experts agreed after the arguments last month that this was about a close to a slam dunk as you’re going to see at the high court.

Yet with Scalia’s sudden passing a 4-4 tie is now the safe bet because Friedrichs seemed likely to be 5-4 not 6-3. What does this mean? 4-4 cases like this are not precedent setting, so it doesn’t settle the issue. But a 4-4 will uphold the lower court decision in favor of the unions (which, ironically, the Friedrich’s team wanted and facilitated in order to hurry the case to the Supreme Court to have that decision overturned).

That was a similar conclusion to the one expressed by Los Angeles Times reporter Howard Blume:

Without Scalia, a 4-4 split is considered likely. That would maintain the status quo — a huge win for unions, at least for now. Though union opponents could mount a new case, that would probably take at least another year, said Jeffrey H. Keefe, a research associate at the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

“So the conflict shifts to President Obama’s ability to appoint a replacement or who will win the presidential election,” Keefe said.

As USA Today pointed out, the ruling does not have national impact as it only applies to the states covered by the 9th Circuit. But it’s still an important case to consider when writing about school district and labor group relations moving forward. For more on these issues, take a look at EWA’s Topics Page on Teacher Workforce. You’ll find the latest news, key coverage, and even questions to ask in your own reporting.