The Supreme Court heard oral arguments this morning over a seemingly obscure issue: public-sector unions’ “agency fees.” But while this may seem like a tangential dispute, the outcome of the case will matter a great deal to many labor unions nationwide.
The basic idea is pretty straightforward, and The New Republic’s Elizabeth Bruenig summarized the issue this way:
Agency fees work like this: Public sector unions are required to cover all employees in a given bargaining unit, whether the employees opt into union membership or not. Public sector employees (which include EMTs, firefighters, public school teachers, social workers, and more) thus pay agency fees to their respective unions even if they are not union members, because public sector unions work on behalf of everyone in their bargaining unit, not just union members.Agency fees do not fund unions’ political activities, but rather strictly the costs of union grievance-handling, organizing, and collective bargaining. In the 1977 case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the Supreme Court upheld the right of public sector unions to extract agency fees from public sector workers, and found that agency fees do not violate employees’ freedom of speech, so long as they do not fund unions’ political activities.
So far, so good.
The trouble, according to many on the right, is that literally everything unions do – even collective bargaining itself – is inherently political, even if it’s unrelated to campaign activities. As a result, we’re left with a case – Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association – in which the justices have an opportunity to overturn the Abood precedent, and as of this morning, it appears a majority of the justices are prepared to do exactly that.
MSNBC’s Irin Carmon reported from the Supreme Court:
For the California teachers’ unions pleading their case at the Supreme Court Monday morning – in a case that could impact public sector unions across the country – the math just didn’t add up. All five conservative justices expressed their exasperation at the argument that unions should be able to charge non-members for collective bargaining, and showed sympathy for the teachers who went to court to say such fees violate their First Amendment rights.Justice Anthony Kennedy, who sometimes votes with the Democratic appointees, but rarely on issues he perceives to be First Amendment-related, seemed the most sympathetic of all to the plaintiffs.
And what happens if, in yet another 5-4 ruling, the high court rules against agency fees? The ruling’s details will obviously matter, but it’s likely public-sector unions will still bargain on behalf of public-sector workers – union members and non-members alike – though workers will have far less of an incentive to pay dues to a union once they’re voluntary.
The result is an existential threat to the unions that rely on agency fees and have operated under the system the Supreme Court helped enshrine a generation ago.
A ruling is expected in June.