Unions Get Major Win With Supreme Court Tie

Scalia's death might have had a dramatic impact on the future of collective bargaining in the U.S.

When Friedrichs v. California was argued in January it seemed poised to deal public sector unions a deathblow. However, that was before the death of conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who many expected to be the decisive fifth vote. With Scalia off the court, the case was tabled with a 4-4 tie on Tuesday, and many are citing the decision as a huge win for public sector unions.

The case was brought by California public schoolteachers, including teacher Rebecca Friedrichs, who elected not to join unions and argued that paying for unions’ collective bargaining activities was a violation of their First Amendment rights. The case stood to eradicate a 40-year-old opinion that protected public sector unions. In a Think Progress piece written before Scalia's death that explained the importance of the case, Ian Millhiser wrote that:

Friedrichs involves what are alternatively called "fair share” or “agency” fees, which unions charge non-members in order to recoup the cost of services performed for those non-members. Unions are required by law to bargain on behalf of every worker in a unionized shop, even if those workers opt not to join the union. As such, non-members receive the same higher wages (one study found that workers in unionized shops enjoy a wage premium of nearly 12 percent) and benefits enjoyed by their coworkers who belong to the union.

Absent something else, this arrangement would create a free-rider problem, because individual workers have little incentive to join the union if they know they will get all the benefits of unionizing regardless of whether they reimburse the union for its costs. Eventually, unions risk becoming starved for funds and collapsing, causing the workers once represented by a union to lose the benefits of collective bargaining.

A ruling in Friedrichs' favor would have impacted millions of government workers and negatively impacted public-sector unions economically. The plaintiffs had announced they would seek a re-hearing in the event of a tie.

Michael Arria is an associate editor at AlterNet and AlterNet's labor editorFollow @MichaelArria on Twitter.

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