Supreme Court takes up major case on public sector union fees

By Lawrence Hurley WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to take up a case that could weaken public sector unions, a challenge by 10 nonunion public school teachers who say California's requirement that they pay the equivalent of union dues violates their free speech rights. The teachers have asked the court to upend a decades-old practice allowing public-sector unions to collect fees from workers who do not want union representation so long as the money is not spent on political activities. The case comes as some Republican politicians, most notably Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, have taken aim at public and private sector unions, which generally align themselves with Democrats. In 2011, Walker signed a law that limited collective bargaining rights for state workers. Walker, a likely 2016 presidential candidate, then prevailed in a union-backed 2012 recall election. Unions, including the California Teachers Association, had urged the court not to hear the case, as did California Attorney General Kamala Harris, a Democrat. "We are disappointed that ... the Supreme Court has chosen to take a case that threatens the fundamental promise of America - that if you work hard and play by the rules you should be able to provide for your family and live a decent life," the unions said in a statement. The case targeting various teachers' unions offers the justices a chance to overturn a significant labor law precedent from 1977. In the case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the high court held that such payments to unions by nonmembers did not violate the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment free-speech guarantee because nonmembers otherwise would benefit from collective bargaining at no cost. Members of the Supreme Court's conservative wing, including Justice Samuel Alito, have criticized the precedent. The case could affect 7 million public-sector employees covered by collective bargaining agreements in more than 20 states, according to the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank that filed a brief urging the court to hear the case. 'DECIDE FOR THEMSELVES' The Center for Individual Rights, the nonprofit law firm representing the plaintiffs, welcomed the court taking the case. "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. 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," said Terry Pell, the group's president. Under California's "agency-shop" system, public school teachers who do not join the union must pay a fee equal to union dues. Nonmembers can then seek a refund of the portion the union spent on lobbying and activities unrelated to collective bargaining or contract administration. The conservative-leaning Supreme Court has signaled dissatisfaction with the Abood ruling. In a 5-4 ruling in a 2012 case, Alito said Abood and subsequent cases "have substantially impinged upon the First Amendment rights of non-members" of public-sector unions. Last year, the court declined to extend the Abood precedent to Illinois home-health workers. The 5-4 ruling stated that state-paid, in-home care workers cannot be compelled to pay union dues, but the court stopped short of blocking organized labor from collecting such fees from other public employees. The 10 teachers, including lead plaintiff Rebecca Friedrichs, sued the unions in 2013 saying the "agency-shop" system violated their free speech rights. The teachers appealed to the Supreme Court after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the unions in November 2014. The court will hear arguments and issue a ruling in its next term, which starts in October and ends in June 2016. The case is Friedrichs et al, v. California Teachers Association, et al, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 14-915. (Additional reporting by Barbara Grzincic; Editing by Will Dunham)