What a teachers’ challenge to union fees could mean for organized labor

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first, to the Supreme Court.

Today, the justices heard arguments involving a group of California schoolteachers and a major teachers union, in a case that could have wide ramifications for organized labor. The question: Can teachers who aren't union members be required to pay some union dues?

Our regular Marcia Coyle of "The National Law Journal" was in the courtroom today, and she's here with us now to tell us more.

Marcia, before I begin, I have to say, you and I were just talking about David Bowie, and you said you remembered something special.

MARCIA COYLE, "The National Law Journal": I do.

I remember his duet with Bing Crosby on a Crosby Christmas special, when he sang "Peace on Earth" and Bing Crosby sang "Little Drummer Boy." And it was just a really beautiful duet, a moment, yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Another testament to his versatility.

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, definitely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I had to ask you about that.

So, this case involving the teachers in California…

MARCIA COYLE: No singing in the Supreme Court today.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: No singing today.

MARCIA COYLE: No.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is a case with some history.

MARCIA COYLE: Yes.

In 1977, the Supreme Court upheld a state law that required unions, which at the time were the exclusive bargaining agent and had to represent all public employees in that unit, it allowed those unions to collect — or it required those unions to collect so-called agency shop fees in order to cover their share of the collective bargaining costs, even though they were non-members of the union.

The Supreme Court at the time said that the interference with their First Amendment speech and association rights were justified for two reasons. Government employers wanted labor peace. They didn't want to be negotiating with multiple representatives with often conflicting demands.

And, also, the government employers wanted to avoid free riders, those non-union members who would get the benefits of collective bargaining without sharing in the cost. Fast-forward almost 40 years. The Supreme Court has two cases, one in 2012, another in 2014, both by Justice Alito, casting doubt on whether that 1977 decision was really good law.

And into that doubt stepped some smart lawyers, anti-union lawyers who created a case that would challenge that 1977 decision head on. And that's the case the court heard today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, tell us how it unfolded today, the main arguments. And how did the justices respond?

MARCIA COYLE: OK.

First up would be the 10 California public school teachers who are objecting to paying any fees to the union. The — I saw in the court what I would call a clear ideological divide. You had the more conservative justices being very skeptical of the union's claims that the interests served by that 1977 decision really did comport or really did justify the First Amendment encroachment by the agency shop fees.

Justice Kennedy was the most critical voice, I think, during the arguments. He said this was compelled speech, and what the unions were doing were creating compelled riders, not free riders, but compelled riders.

You also had the chief justice and Justices Alito and Justice Scalia questioning the line that the court in 1977 drew between collective bargaining activities, for which unions could collect the fees, and unrelated activities that were more political.

Justice Scalia said everything that is collectively bargained with the government has a political component to it. On the other side, you had justices like Justice Ginsburg, Kagan, Sotomayor demanding of the California teachers who are challenging this a special justification for overruling a 1977 precedent that's been around 40 years, and, as Justice Kagan said, tens of thousands of contracts, affecting maybe 10 million people have been in place because of that 1977 decision.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Marcia, something — in fact, a fair amount has been written about whether this is going to have broader repercussions. Did that come up in the arguments today?

MARCIA COYLE: It did.

In fact, Justice Ginsburg said, if this 1977 precedent falls, so, too, will the court's decisions upholding similar required fees, for example, that lawyers play — pay in mandatory bar associations, and even student activity fees paid in public universities.

But there is a disagreement between the two sides over the impact. The teachers challenging the fees, their lawyers say, no, unions will continue to go on. There are 25 states that don't have agency shop fees and their unions continue to exist and thrive.

The other side, the unions, say, no, this is a major blow. We use this money to do things like train teachers, train firefighters in other types of unions, provide equipment that maybe counties and local governments can't afford. So they see this as a real weakening and a blow if that 1977 decision falls.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, this one has been watched closely. And we're going to be seeing a lot more of you soon.

MARCIA COYLE: It is going to be a very big end of term, Judy, so I'm sure I will be back.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We can't wait.

Marcia Coyle, thank you.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure.