Three months after the U.S. Supreme
Court deadlocked on the controversial anti-union case, Friedrichs v. California
Teachers Association, the court’s eight remaining justices declined on June 28
to rehear the case next term.
The decision puts to rest the case of Rebecca Friedrichs, a California schoolteacher who objected to paying so-called “fair share” fees to her union for basic services such as collective bargaining, grievance adjudication and contract administration. Friedrichs and her eight co-plaintiffs argued that the fees violated their First Amendment right to free speech, but the court, short a member after Associate Justice Antonin Scalia’s February death, was unable to reach a definitive judgment.
The March announcement of a 4-4 tie on the court was a victory for unions, many of whom were preparing for the consequences of a ruling against labor until Scalia’s death changed the predicted outcome. In short, a decision for Friedrichs would have declared all public sector workplaces—from public utilities to statehouses—right-to-work, exempting non-members from any obligation to contribute to the costs of collective bargaining on their behalf.
“We’re pleased to hear that the Friedrichs saga has come to an end,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson, “but that doesn’t mean these sorts of attacks are over. We have to stay vigilant and keep fighting to protect working men and women from corporate-backed efforts like this one.”
The anti-union backers of the Friedrichs plaintiffs, who receive millions in funding from conservative and corporate donors like the Koch brothers, quickly announced that at least five similar cases that have been on hold will soon resume working their way through the court system.
Patrick Semmens, a spokesman for the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, pointed to three cases currently in district courts, one at the U.S. Court of Appeals level and another before the Massachusetts State Court of Appeals.
Of the district court actions, each one deals with issues nearly identical to the Friedrichs case. The first was brought by Republican Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and state employees who object to paying “fair share” fees. The second involves school employees in Kentucky, and the third is an objection to the fees, brought by state troopers in Connecticut. The case pending before the Massachusetts State Court of Appeals is similar as well, with several schoolteachers objecting to paying bargaining costs. All of them, like Friedrichs, seek to enshrine right-to-work for public employees.
At the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which covers the states of Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, the issue is with the Railway Labor Act, which doesn’t contain a right-to-work provision like the National Labor Relations Act. Like the plaintiffs in non-right-to-work states, employees – this time at airlines – are seeking to block the collection of union fees, asking the court to add a right-to-work exemption for all airline and railroad employees covered under the Railway Labor Act.
The common thread in all of these cases is that they’re all aiming for one ultimate goal – a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court – which they hope will invalidate the collection of “fair share” fees either in whole or in part. Each of the plaintiffs is also represented by the anti-union National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, whose president, Mark Mix, assured supporters that, “the fight taken up by Rebecca [Friedrichs] and her co-plaintiffs has not ended today.” He added that he expects the Supreme Court to hear one of the five cases listed here, “before too long.”
But with Republican senators blocking President Barack Obama’s nomination of Appeals Court Judge Merrick Garland to fill Scalia’s empty seat, it will likely be up to the next president to nominate the justice who will cast the deciding vote on or more of the five cases up for hearing.
“That makes this election in November so much more important,” said Stephenson. “We need a president who will appoint justices that will defend our rights to band together and fight for a stronger voice in the workplace.”
In May, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump released the names of 11 judges he said were “representative of the kind of constitutional principles I value,” and who would make up his short list when nominating Scalia’s replacement. The list includes Wisconsin’s Diane Sykes, a close ally of Gov. Scott Walker who gutted public unions in his home state, and a handful of other very conservative anti-labor jurists whose records show they could do serious damage to the labor movement.
“We were very lucky to escape Friedrichs without taking major damage,” Stephenson said. “We can’t let working people be put in that position again, and we have a chance to ensure the next president puts a friend of labor on the court in November. We have to do everything we can to make sure that happens.”
Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user Kyle Rush.