Supreme Court Leaves Public Employee Union Fees Intact

Author: David B. Weisenfeld, XpertHR Legal Editor

March 30, 2016

The nation's public employee unions have "won" a 4-4 tie at the Supreme Court in a case that could have left their future very much in doubt. Many observers had billed Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association as the most significant labor and employment-related dispute on the Court's schedule this term.

But in a terse one-sentence opinion, the justices said, "The judgment is affirmed by an equally divided Court." The result means that unions may continue to collect dues from employees they represent, so long as the dues are being used for collective bargaining, contract administration or grievance adjustment purposes.

During oral arguments in January, a majority of the Court's justices appeared ready to agree with a group of objecting California public school teachers who claimed the state teachers' union is violating their free speech rights by compelling them to pay union dues. But the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, a likely voter for the objecting teachers, dramatically changed the result.

A ruling in the objecting teachers' favor would have weakened public-sector unions and affected millions of government employees. During the arguments, Justice Elena Kagan said that such a result could "disrupt thousands of labor contracts."

Public employee unions came close to losing their ability to compel fees from nonmembers in the 2014 case of Harris v. Quinn, but the Court stopped short of doing so. About half of the states, including California, allow unions to require public employees to pay these dues to help pay the cost of collective bargaining.

The state supported the teachers' union in this case. California Solicitor General Edward Dumont explained, "As employers, we're trying to reach workable agreements to govern particular workplaces for particular periods of time." That led him to conclude, "We need to have concrete decisions with one group of employees represented by one union to do that."