January 22, 2016

U.S. Supreme Court Hears Case on Public Employee Agency Fees

The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a case that could overturn an almost 40-year-old precedent that allows public employee unions to collect “agency fees” from employees who don’t want to join (and pay union dues to) the union that collectively bargained on their behalf.  The Court’s 1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education established that although public employees who don’t join a union cannot be required to pay for the union’s political activities, they can be charged “agency fees” to help pay for the costs the union incurred on the employee’s behalf, such as collective bargaining expenses.

According to Amy Howe at SCOTUSblog.com, the questions from the Court’s more conservative justices focused on the argument that the collective bargaining process for public employees was inherently political because public employee salaries and benefits affect government budgets. Thus (as explained in a different SCOTUSblog post), requiring employees to pay agency fees violated their “First Amendment right not to pay for activity to which they object.” 

The Court’s more liberal justices instead largely focused on how overturning the Abood decision would affect public employee unions and their collective bargaining agreements in the states (including Connecticut) that allow their public sector unions to collect agency fees.  To Howe, the difference in questions suggests that the more liberal justices realize that they may not win an argument over the case’s merits, but instead must convince at least one of their colleagues that it simply is, as a matter of principle, a bad idea to overturn Abood.