Supreme Court Case Could Put Future of Public Sector Unions in Doubt

Author: David B. Weisenfeld, XpertHR Legal Editor

July 1, 2015

The Supreme Court announced Tuesday it will hear a case challenging the mandatory union dues that nearly all California teachers are currently required to pay. In Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, the justices will consider the legality of a practice that labor unions consider crucial - collecting dues from all workers whether they belong to a union or not.

Since the Supreme Court's 1977 ruling in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, unions generally have been allowed to collect dues from all public or private employees that they represent so long as the dues are being used for collective bargaining, contract administration or grievance adjustment purposes. However, those who object are not required to pay for political or lobbying activities.

Last year, the Court dealt a blow to public unions in Harris v. Quinn by striking down an Illinois law that compelled home care personal assistants (PAs) working under a state program to pay union dues despite the fact they were not union members. But the Court stopped short of removing a state's ability to require non-union public sector workers to pay dues because it found the PAs did not qualify as full-fledged public employees.

The California case presents a more direct attack on Abood and mandatory union fees. The state's public employee unions represent hundreds of thousands of workers so the stakes are significant.

The case is being brought by a group of Orange County teachers who object on First Amendment grounds to supporting the California Teachers Association. Their lawyers contend anything a public employee union does is an attempt to affect public policy, so non-union members should not have to pay any fees.

"Right to work" groups claim that unions should affirmatively get an employee's consent before collecting dues rather than requiring them to affirmatively object to subsidizing a union's political speech.

Union supporters argue that requiring public employees to pay union dues is needed to prevent a "free-rider" problem of workers who benefit economically from collectively bargained higher wages without having contributed to the negotiation cost. They note that the California Teachers Association negotiates collective bargaining agreements with school district employers that aid all employees.

The justices will hear the case in their next term, with arguments likely to be scheduled for December 2015 or January 2016.