The union movement got yesterday a significant win at the Supreme Court, which left unchanged the fees that all beneficiaries pay unions for their representation work.
It was widely believed that the tribunal’s ruling would go against labor interests, in line with the pattern of previous decisions, but the death of conservative judge Antonin Scalia altered the court’s ideological balance. It was a 4-4 tie, which upholds the lower court ruling in favor of unions. This creates a national precedent but is only valid in 20 states, including California, Illinois and New York.
Several years ago the Supreme Court determined that, on free speech grounds, an individual could prevent his union fees from being used to support a candidature or political agenda. Those individuals today get a reimbursement from the union for the estimated amount spent on politics, and instead pay a fee – different from regular union members – germane to collective bargaining.
Now a group of California teachers say that their freedom of speech rights are also being violated when their union proposes labor policies that they do not agree with, even if they benefit from them. For example, they don’t want to pay the fee because they disagree with seniority-based layoffs, even though it protects them.
The plaintiff’s goal is to weaken public unions. Their idea is to cut their funding, as well as encouraging free loaders who want to enjoy labor benefits paid for by others. This is an important win, but also a short-lived one.
It’s difficult that a case like this will get a hearing anytime soon, but since there are similar cases on the courts it will certainly come back one day, probably when the nine justices are restored.
The tie decision is an example of the lack of resolution that entails leaving a long vacancy on the Supreme Court, as it seems is going to be the case if the Senate fails to confirm Merrick Garland, the judge nominated to replace Scalia.
The ruling also shows the impact of this election on the Supreme Court. The next president will have to select Scalia’s replacement – if Garland’s nomination does not pan out. The key vote in yesterday’s decision, as well as others affecting Latinos, workers and consumers, will be in his or her hands. But before that happens, it’s up to the voters to make the choice.