Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association is dead. The U.S. Supreme Court, split 4-4 on the case, announced in a single-sentence order March 29 that a lower court ruling against plaintiff Friedrichs will stand. A 5-4 decision overturning the lower court was expected until conservative justice Antonin Scalia died Feb. 13.
The case was about Rebecca Friedrichs, a teacher who said it violated her free speech rights for her to have to pay “fair share” fees covering the cost of bargaining and enforcing her union contract. A well-funded anti-union legal foundation picked her as the vehicle for a lawsuit specifically designed to give the Supreme Court the chance to reverse a 1977 Supreme Court decision, Abood vs. Detroit Board of Education. The Abood decision said that union-represented public employees couldn’t be required to become union members, but could be required to share in the expense of representation. But in the court’s 2014 Harris vs. Quinn decision, a 5-4 majority called Abood into question: The court said home care workers couldn’t be required to pay dues or the equivalent, but for technical reasons they stopped short of overturning Abood.
If Abood had been overturned, it would have created a “right-to-work” situation for all public employee unions in America: No union-represented public employee would have been required to pay the costs of union representation. That likely would have been a crippling blow to unions. The split court means that it will continue to be up to states whether to require public-sector union fees.