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Teachers' Unions Sigh in Relief as SCOTUS Deadlocks in Friedrichs Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has deadlocked in a closely watched case over whether labor unions can charge some fees of nonmembers. 

The 4-4 decision issued this morning, just a sentence long, affirms a lower-court ruling that the fees are permissible. That means that the nation's teachers' unions, and organized labor the country over, have—for now—narrowly avoided a crippling legal blow that could have accelerated membership losses. 

As I've reported, "agency" or "fair share" fees are charged of nonmembers who benefit from collective bargaining. This is a common arrangement in K-12 education, where all teachers, union members and nonmembers alike, ostensibly benefit from things like salary increases and class-size caps negotiated by the unions.

But the case in question, Freidrichs v. California Teachers Association, was brought by a handful of teachers who argued that that the very act of collective bargaining is political, and as such infringes on nonmembers' free-speech rights. It sought to overturn the 1977 legal precedent establishing the constitutionality of agency fees. During oral arguments, lawyers for the unions got a chilly reception from the right-leaning court. But the death of Antonin Scalia on Feb. 13 changed the landscape. 

In early statements, the teachers' unions praised the ruling.

"From the beginning, this case was never about what's good for our students; it was a thinly veiled attempt to weaken the rights of public employees, like teachers and other educators," said Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association. "The corporate interests behind this case know that if our union is weakened, it will be harder for us to stand together to negotiate good wages and benefits and to continue fighting for the things our students need,"

Still, this 4-4 ruling isn't necessarily a long-term victory. The forces that have helped to bankroll this effort—such as the Center for Individual Rights and the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation—are likely to push for a rehearing once the vacancy on the Supreme Court is filled, though those are infrequently granted. In addition, the ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit applied only to California, which means that other challenges to the 1977 law are wide open

Here's Lyle Denniston of the SCOTUS blog making this very point: "The Friedrichs case, from its very inception, was meant to test whether public employee agent fees would be struck down.  Lower courts obliged by acting quickly and summarily. Almost no chance that the challengers [won't] find another case, another client, and start over, with a case not reaching the Court until next Term when, possibly, there will be a full bench."

Finally, the teachers' unions still have some internal soul-searching to do about the tensions over their long-term future that this case has helped bring to the forefront. Several labor-watchers over the past month have wondered, for instance, whether the potential loss of agency fees would force unions to make a stronger case for why joining one really matters—and push them to upend arguably moribund organizing divisions. 

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