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Supreme Court Issues Split Decision in Friedrichs v. CTA; Public Sector Unions and Employers May Continue to Negotiate Union Security

March 29, 2016 by

The Supreme Court has issued a 4-4 decision in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a case that threatened to upend forty years of public sector collective bargaining by imposing “right to work” on all state, city, county and public agency employers and their employees’ labor unions.  The court issued a one-line “per curiam” decision indicating simply: “The Judgment is affirmed by an evenly divided court.”  For now, the Ninth Circuit’s decision stands with no change in the law, and public employee unions may continue to negotiate union security provisions on behalf of their members. 

Friedrichs was heralded by opponents of labor as the death knell of public sector unions.  As it turned out, it was not public sector unions for whom that bell tolled.  Rather, Justice Scalia’s unexpected death balanced the scale.  Absent this divine intervention, the 4-4 decision indicates Justice Kennedy — a swing vote on some issues — sided with what would in all likelihood have been a right-wing majority opinion to overturn Abood.

The decision affirms an order issued by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that applied existing Supreme Court precedent, specifically Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, to find that CTA’s union security provisions are lawful under the First Amendment.  Opponents of labor unions, and particularly conservative activists who hope to stifle labor’s participation in politics, had hoped the Friedrich’s case would result in a reversal of this longstanding precedent.

There are other cases pending that challenge public sector union security, most of which were stayed pending resolution of Friedrichs.  Clearly, the composition of the Supreme Court is of vital significance, and the Friedrichs decision will serve to galvanize the increasing partisanship over President Obama’s — or his successor’s — nomination to fill the vacancy left by Justice Scalia’s death.





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