WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court signaled Tuesday that it may be prepared to strike down laws forcing public employees to pay union dues, posing a major threat to organized labor.
The justices agreed to hear a California case in the term beginning next fall challenging the requirement that teachers contribute to unions, even if they don’t join them or agree with their positions on issues.
Two lower courts upheld that arrangement, but the high court in recent years has been hostile to the so-called “agency shop” rules. In two prior cases, Justice Samuel Alito wrote majority opinions scaling back on the requirement.
Under the high court’s 1977 precedent, unions largely have been allowed to collect dues from all private or public employees they represent. Those who object don’t have to contribute to political or lobbying activities, but they must chip in for the unions’ efforts in fighting for better wages, benefits and working conditions.
But in the most recent case last year, the court ruled 5-4 along ideological lines that home-care workers in Illinois do not have to pay dues to public employee unions. The workers said the unions lobbied the government, often on issues the workers oppose — thereby abridging their First Amendment rights.
In his ruling, Alito said that except in rare circumstances, “no person in this country may be compelled to subsidize speech by a third party that he or she does not wish to support.”
While the court did not go so far as to overrule its own precedent in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, advocates on both sides of the issue have said it was only a matter of time before another case came before them. That now appears to beFriedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which the court likely will hear in December or January.
California teachers who are not members of the union must contribute unless they opt out within certain time constraints. The lawsuit argues that the process should be just the opposite — non-members should be excluded from contributing unless they opt in.
The teachers unions, in their brief to the court, said the agency shop arrangement is “simply a requirement that a nonmember teacher who receives the benefit of additional compensation as a result of the unions’ efforts in collective bargaining must pay a share of the unions’ costs in negotiating those improvements, rather than receiving a free ride.”
But the challengers — 10 teachers who are not members of the unions — call it a “multi-hundred-million-dollar regime of compelled political speech.” They are represented by Michael Carvin, the lawyer who represented the Virginia challengers to President Obama’s health care law in the case decided by the Supreme Court last week.
Terry Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights, which brought the lawsuit on behalf of Rebecca Friedrichs and others, said the high court’s agreement to hear the case was “long overdue.”
“This case is about the right of individuals to decide for themselves whether to join and pay dues to an organization that purports to speak on their behalf,” Pell said. “We are seeking the end of compulsory union dues across the nation on the basis of the free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.”
Public employee unions reacted with alarm, but not surprise, at the court’s granting of the case.
“The Supreme Court is revisiting decisions that have made it possible for people to stick together for a voice at work and in their communities — decisions that have stood for more than 35 years — and that have allowed people to work together for better public services and vibrant communities,” said a statement from five union leaders representing teachers and other government workers.