Supreme Court takes up major case on public sector union dues

The U.S. Supreme Court
Gary Cameron | Reuters
The U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to take up a case that could weaken public sector unions, a challenge by 10 nonunion public school teachers who say California's requirement that they pay the equivalent of union dues violates their free speech rights.

The teachers have asked the court to upend a decades-old practice that lets public-sector unions collect money from workers who do not want union representation so long as the money is not spent on political activities.

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The case targeting various teachers' unions offers the justices a chance potentially to overturn a significant labor law precedent from 1977 in the case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. In that case, the high court held that such payments to unions by nonmembers did not violate the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment because otherwise nonmembers would benefit at no cost from collective bargaining.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to take up a case that could weaken public sector unions, a challenge by 10 nonunion public school teachers who say California's requirement that they pay the equivalent of union dues violates their free speech rights.

The teachers have asked the court to upend a decades-old practice that lets public-sector unions collect money from workers who do not want union representation so long as the money is not spent on political activities.

The case targeting various teachers' unions offers the justices a chance potentially to overturn a significant labor law precedent from 1977 in the case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. In that case, the high court held that such payments to unions by nonmembers did not violate the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment because otherwise nonmembers would benefit at no cost from collective bargaining.

Teacher unions, including the California Teachers Association, urged the court not to take the case, as did California Attorney General Kamala Harris.

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Members of the Supreme Court's conservative wing, including Justice Samuel Alito, have criticized the precedent.

The Center for Individual Rights, the nonprofit law firm representing the plaintiffs, welcomed the court taking the case.

"This case is about the right of individuals to decide for themselves whether to join and pay dues to an organization that purports to speak on their behalf. We are seeking the end of compulsory union dues across the nation on the basis of the free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment," said Terry Pell, the group's president.

The case could affect 7 million public-sector employees covered by collective bargaining agreements in more than 20 states, according to the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank that filed a brief urging the court to hear the case.

Under California's "agency-shop" system, public school teachers who do not join the union must pay a fee equal to union dues. Nonmembers can then seek a refund of the portion the union spent on lobbying and activities unrelated to collective bargaining or contract administration.

The 10 teachers, including lead plaintiff Rebecca Friedrichs, sued the unions in 2013 saying the "agency-shop" system violated their First Amendment free speech rights.

The court will hear oral arguments and issue a ruling in its next term, which starts in October and ends in June 2016.

The case is Friedrichs et al, v. California Teachers Association, et al, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 14-915.