Antonin Scalia and the four other conservative justices were poised to deal a heavy blow to worker's rights in America. After oral arguments had been made in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, many observers felt that a 5-4 decision to defund public sector unions was all but inevitable. The conservative majority had long made their support for Right to Work laws known, and with the Friedrichs case, a decision against the unions would have allowed public workers to avoid paying dues and other fees in support of collective bargaining efforts on their behalf. In a nutshell, the plaintiffs in the case argued that their First Amendment rights were violated by being required to pay union dues and other fees that would then be used to support public policies that they disagreed with.
In an earlier case, Harris v. Quinn, Scalia had voted with the conservative majority on the court in forcing home health care workers to become Right to Work employees, driving down their wages and removing important job protections. In another case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, a close decision found that teachers who did not pay dues in support of union activities could still be required to help pay their ‘fair share’ of costs associated with collective bargaining.
In the Friedrichs case, the court was on the brink of overturning the Abood decision, and 30 years of precedent, in removing the fair share rules. This would have allowed individual teachers to collect the higher wages, job security and other benefits that unions fought for, but without financially supporting the unions personally. Scalia’s earlier statements in support of the Harris decision led most observers to conclude that his opposition to unions would be decisive in the Friedrichs case.
This could have decimated the unions’ already meager ability to compete against billion dollar international corporations in shaping public policy and protecting wages and workers rights. Following Scalia's death, it seems unlikely that the effort will find the five votes that it needs.
Importantly, the case rose to the Supreme Court after the plaintiffs had appealed an earlier loss in the lower courts. This effectively means that all the important court decisions will now line up in favor of American workers, since the earlier decisions in favor of the unions will now stand.
Until this past weekend, public unions had good reason to expect the worst. But, now, with the court’s four liberal members still supporting the fair share rules under Abood, it seems that public sector workers will get a reprieve.