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“This Is No Small Development”: Supreme Court Split Saves Public-Sector Unions

Republicans have made no secret of the fact that they fear the Supreme Court moving to the left, even a little, in the wake of Antonin Scalia’s death. But we were reminded this morning that in the late justice’s absence, the high court’s capacity for conservative change has already been curtailed.

CNBC reported on the release of a decision that wasn’t expected until June.

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.

The court, shorthanded after the Feb. 13 death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia and evenly divided with four liberal and four conservative members, left intact a 1977 legal precedent that allowed such fees, which add up to millions of dollars a year for unions.

The case is called Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, and the Supreme Court’s “decision,” such as it is, has been posted online here. It’s extraordinarily brief, however: it reads in its entirety, “Per Curium. The judgment is affirmed by an equally divided Court.”

This is no small development. At issue in this case was a seemingly obscure issue – public-sector unions’ “agency fees” – but while this may seem like a tangential dispute, the outcome had the potential to disrupt many labor unions nationwide.

Revisiting our previous coverageThe New Republic’s Elizabeth Bruenig summarized the issue this way:

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. In the 1977 case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the Supreme Court 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.

The trouble, according to many on the right, is that literally everything unions do – even collective bargaining itself – is inherently political, even if it’s unrelated to campaign activities. As a result, the Friedrichs case offered the justices an opportunity to overturn the Abood precedent.

And if Scalia had lived, that’s almost certainly what the justices would have done in a 5-4 decision. Instead, the court was evenly split.

Make no mistake: this case represented a major threat to the existence of unions that rely on agency fees. Had the court sided with the right, public-sector unions would still bargain on behalf of public-sector workers – union members and non-members alike – but workers’ dues would have been voluntary.

This case will go back to the Supreme Court again in the not-too-distant future, but for now, a 4-4 split saved public-sector unions, leaving them to fight another day.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, March 29, 2016

March 30, 2016 Posted by | Public Sector Unions, Republicans, SCOTUS | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“An Assault On Collective Bargaining”: The Common Thread Of Supreme Court Decisions, “You’re On Your Own”

Although the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case is getting most of the attention today, the other major case the justices decided, regarding public-sector unions, could prove to be even more significant. And in both cases, the court had a common message: You’re on your own.

That may not be how the union decision, Harris v. Quinn, looks on first glance. Indeed, the conservative majority cast it as a conflict between the freedom of individual workers and the interests of a union, and they sided with the workers. But make no mistake: This case is one part of a larger assault on collective bargaining, and the majority even hinted in its decision that there would be more to come. So often, cases such as these come down to questions of power: who has it, who doesn’t and on whose behalf should it be exercised. And this court’s majority knows where power belongs.

Harris v. Quinn was a case about whether home health-care workers in Illinois, who are paid by Medicaid, would have to pay some dues to the union that negotiates salaries and benefits on their behalf even if they choose not to join. If they were allowed to become free riders, getting the benefits of union representation without paying for it, the union’s position becomes far less sustainable. But the court held that the workers’ free speech rights were violated by the requirement, since the union might say things with their money that they disagreed with (though none of those dues go to political activity, and they aren’t required to actually join the union if they don’t wish to). The court said that it could strike down the law because these workers aren’t state employees even though they’re paid by Medicaid; it also described the 1977 case that allowed the requirement on state employees as having “questionable foundations,” a signal that the court may be gearing up to overturn that case and deal a fatal blow to all public-sector unions.

It’s no coincidence that the public sector is the core of what remains of union power in the United States today. And taken together, today’s two decisions mark yet another step in a direction this court has long been moving: toward more power in corporate hands, and less for ordinary people.

One does begin to wonder where the court sees any limits on corporate power at all. In Citizens United, the court ruled that corporations have free speech rights that enable them to spend all they want to influence the political process. In Hobby Lobby, the court ruled that corporations have religious rights that trump the rights of their employees and allow the corporation to pick which laws it would like to follow and which it would like to ignore. The decision extends the corporation’s control over its employees’ lives beyond what happens when they’re working, beyond even things they do that could affect their work, to a purely private arena that touches on their employment only because that’s where they’re getting their health insurance.

And as Harris v. Quinn shows, the court’s conservatives become concerned about workers and their rights only when some subset of workers is seeking to undermine unions, which exist to equalize the power imbalance between employers and employees.

In other words, both these cases are about power, and this Supreme Court is determined that it be moved more and more into the hands of those who already have it. And you can bet there’s more to come.


By: Paul Waldman, The Plum Line, The Washington Post, June 30, 2014

July 7, 2014 Posted by | Collective Bargaining, Public Sector Unions, Supreme Court | , , , , , | Leave a comment


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