WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court said Tuesday it was unable to resolve a major challenge to organized labor, and the result was a defeat for a group of California teachers who contend their free speech rights are violated when they are forced to pay dues to the state’s teachers union.
The court was split 4-4 on the issue, following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. It was the most important case yet in which the eight-member court was unable to reach a decision.
At oral argument, the court’s conservatives appeared ready to junk a decades-old precedent that allows unions to collect an “agency fee” from nonmembers to support collective-bargaining activities for members and nonmembers alike.
Organized labor considered it the most vital Supreme Court case of the year, and one of a clutch of politically charged cases that puts the justices in the spotlight as the nation turns its attention to the 2016 elections.
The case involves only public employee unions, not private workers, but those unions are the strongest segment of an organized labor movement that is increasingly tied to the Democratic Party. At the same time, Republican governors across the nation have become embroiled in high-profile battles with the public employee unions in their states.
Conservative groups directly asked the court to overturn a 1977 decision, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, that favored the unions. That ruling said states could allow public employee unions to collect fees from nonmembers to cover the costs of workplace negotiations, but not to cover the union’s political activities.
At oral argument, it appeared the groups would get their wish. The conservative Scalia had actually been the best hope for unions beyond the four liberal justices. But his questions seemed to make clear that he sided with the challengers.
When the court is evenly split, it affirms the decision of the appeals court that considered it. In this case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit said it was bound by the Abood decision, and turned down the challenge.
Public unions saw the split decision as a victory.
“The U.S. Supreme Court today rejected a political ploy to silence public employees like teachers, school bus drivers, cafeteria workers, higher education faculty and other educators to work together to shape their profession,” said National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García.
“The court saw through the political attacks on the workplace rights of teachers, educators and other public employees. This decision recognizes that stripping public employees of their voices in the workplace is not what our country needs.”
It is unlikely the fight is over. But Tuesday’s action makes clear that the outcome will depend on the court’s new justice.