Teacher Union Case Underscores The Importance Of The Supreme Court

Dave Johnson

The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has reversed what was the expected outcome of one of the most important cases facing the Supreme Court, demonstrating the importance of who is and is not on the court.

The case, Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association, was about whether public employee unions could collect a “fair share fee” from employees who benefit from what unions spend on collective bargaining and union representation but choose not to become members of the union. The Economic Policy Institute explains that “banning agency fees simply protects people who want to get something for nothing—people who can fairly be called free riders, or freeloaders.”

Anywhere else in society it would be considered outrageous to get the benefits of a common enterprise without paying one’s fair share. No one would defend someone who joined a condo association and enjoyed the benefits of its landscaping, maintenance, and security without paying the condo fees.

The Supreme Court had ruled unanimously in 1977 that this fee requirement was Constitutional. The conservative activists on this court, however, were prepared to overturn this unanimous precedent as part of a political strategy to force public employee unions into bankruptcy.

It was expected that the Court would rule 5-4 against the unions. However, today’s announcement of a 4-4 tie in the absence of Scalia means a lower court ruling in the unions’ favor will stand. The Friedrichs case came to the Supreme Court from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which had ruled permitting the fair share fee. The tie vote means the 9th Circuit Court’s ruling and the 1977 Supreme Court ruling will stand.

For more information about the Friedrichs case see:

● “Why You Should Pay Attention To The ‘Friedrichs’ Supreme Court Case

● “Supreme Court Appears Ready To Bankrupt Public-Employee Unions

● “Friedrichs Case Not Just About Unions

● “Here’s How A Ruling In Favor Of Friedrichs Will Hurt Education

● “How Scalia’s Death Affects That Important Public-Employee Union Case


America Works Together is a coalition of organizations that came together to help inform the public about this Friedrichs case, issued a statement, beginning:

“Today, the Supreme Court left standing nearly four decades of precedent and sound law that has worked for public employers and working people alike. This marks a significant defeat for the wealthy special interests who want to hijack our economy, our democracy, and even the United States Supreme Court. Millions of teachers, nurses, firefighters, and other public service workers will continue to be able to band together in a union in order to speak up for one another, improve their communities, and hold the wealthy and powerful accountable.

“The Constitution, the law, and the facts are on our side, and we remain confident that we will continue to prevail against the onslaught of baseless litigation from those focused on trying to silence working people in order to benefit themselves at the expense of the rest of us.”

Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO said:

Today, working people have persevered in the face of another attack on our rights. All over the country working people are showing that we won’t allow wealthy special interests or their politicians to stand in our way to join collectively and make workplaces better all across America. In the face of these attacks we are more committed than ever to ensuring that everyone has the right to speak up together for a better life.

Communications Workers of America (CWA):

Today’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association case safeguards, at least for now, the right of public workers to engage in meaningful collective bargaining.

The case had been financed by anti-worker and corporate education supporters who have been working for years to stifle the voices of teachers and other public workers and weaken their collective bargaining rights. It clearly shows how extreme the right-wing assault on workers and their right to bargain, whether public or private sector, has become.

These same right-wing interests want to block any consideration of President Obama’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s time for senators to do their job and take up the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland, not continue the “politics as usual” that ignores the voice of the American people.

Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders:

“Today’s split decision underscores the need to confirm a Supreme Court nominee who will protect the constitutional rights of American workers to collectively bargain for fair wages and safe working conditions.

“The extreme right wing is just one conservative Supreme Court justice away from dismantling the rights of public sector unions to organize and collectively bargain on behalf of all of the workers they are legally bound to represent. We cannot allow that to happen.

Former Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spoke about the importance of the Supreme Court the day before the Friedrichs ruling, saying:

“The court shapes every aspect of life in the United States,” said Clinton. “If we are serious about fighting for progressive causes, we need to focus on the courts.”
[. . .] Clinton asked the crowd to “make sure the Supreme Court factors into your decision on April 5. Consider, what kind of justice would President Trump appoint? He wants to round up 11 million immigrants and kick them out, what would that mean for a nation built by immigrants?”

The Importance Of The Supreme Court

The Friedrichs case underscores the importance of who is and who is not on the Supreme Court. This 4-4 split does not put this issue back to bed. Corporate conservatives will engineer a way to bring another case attacking union security agreements before the Court before long.

With Scalia’s death there is an opening on the court. President Obama has nominated Judge Merrick Garland, who currently sits on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The Constitution calls for the Senate to consider and vote on this nomination. But Republicans are refusing to follow this Constitutional process.

This month’s post, Supreme Obstruction explains,

A Supreme Court justice has died. Normally (and according to the Constitution) the process is that the president nominates a successor, the Senate holds hearings, and there is a vote on whether to confirm that nominee. According to the Constitution, that’s their job, and they took an oath to do that job.

President Obama has said that of course he will fulfill his constitutional duty to nominate a successor to Justice Scalia. But this time Republicans have announced that they will refuse to participate in the constitutional process and will not consider any nomination that the president brings them.

The post ends, “We must tell Republicans that they took an oath to support the Constitution and its processes – or step aside and let We the People have our government back.”

So far more that 110,000 people have signed a petition, launched by a coalition that includes CAF, that will send that message to the Senate. “Our constitution doesn’t change because it’s an election year,” it says. Take a moment now to add your name.

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