Deadlocked Supreme Court Upholds California Labor Union Law

In a 4-4 decision, the Supreme Court has issued a deadlocked ruling on a California law requiring non-union members to pay union dues. The deadlock affirms the lower court ruling, which had allowed the law to stand.

California is one of 23 states to have such a law and without it, unions would have greatly reduced funds and less bargaining power. Several Republican governors have passed so called “right-to-work” laws, which exempt non-union members from paying union dues and outlaws mandatory union membership, moves which are aimed at weakening the power of the unions. The challenge to the California law was yet another attempt by anti-union conservatives to weaken the state’s labor unions.

But the Supreme Court deadlock was a victory for organized labor. It was also something that would not have been possible if Scalia was still on the court. Before his death, Scalia had made it clear he intended to vote to strike down the law, which would have resulted in a 5-4 ruling. But neither side expects the issue to go away, and opponents of the law are expected to appeal it again in coming years once the court has nine justices. The labor unions are preparing for another battle.

The case began when a handful of California teachers who did not belong to the teacher’s union objected that having to pay union dues violated their first amendment rights. Their case was taken up by right-wing anti-union organizations. It challenged a 40 year-old ruling by the court upholding such laws, making it a historic case whose outcome affects labor unions across the country, not just in California. In 1977, in Abood vs. Detroit Board of Education, the court ruled that making non-union members pay union dues did not violate their first amendment rights so long as none of their money went towards financing political activity such as campaign donations. Because of this, non-union members pay a reduced rate, typically about half of what union members are required to pay.

The repeal of California’s union law would have struck down this precedent and could have led to the repeal of similar laws in half the country. It would have been a devastating blow to organized labor, and just a few months ago, it looked as though that was exactly what was about to happen. But Scalia’s sudden death changed everything.

The unions dodged a huge bullet, but since the Supreme Court was unable to issue a definitive ruling, the case will likely come before it again at a later date.


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