Unions score reprieve in potentially devastating Supreme Court case

As recently as early February, union experts and advocates across the United States were gearing up for a devastating blow to the movement from the United States Supreme Court.

But that result is looking less likely in the wake of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death on Feb. 13, which is likely to alter the fate of several important cases that had already been argued.

At stake in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association is the ability of unions to collect dues from members is at stake. A ruling for the challengers would further hobble both the political clout and day-to-day operations of public sector unions in 23 states, dealing perhaps the single most significant blow to public unions in decades.

It all hinges on the assertion from the challengers and their corporate backers that unions should not be able to compel their members to pay dues, or “agency fees” as they are defined in some states.

“It’s part of a concerted effort trying to dismantle the labor movement and to weaken workers’ rights in this country,” former A.F.L.-C.I.O. political director Steve Rosenthal told The New York Times in January. “At the same time that we are facing a near crisis in the elimination of the middle class, people are also trying to destroy one of the main vehicles to the middle class.”

But Scalia’s unexpected death changes the calculus in a way that could bode well for public-sector unions whose members until recently had been preparing for the worst.

Now, according to The Atlantic, the Supreme Court has two options. It could hand down a decision, likely to be split 4-4, which would mean that the lower court ruling supporting the union’s position would stand. Or it could hold the case to be re-argued after Scalia’s replacement is confirmed sometime in the far-distant future.

Either option means that the fate of the case or other such cases that are likely to arise in the immediate future will depend on the political persuasion of the next Supreme Court justice – an outcome which public sector unions, at least for the time being, will still be able to influence.