Teachers unions are breathing easier after the U.S. Supreme Court, in a deadlocked vote, rejected an effort to restrict public sector unions from collecting fees from nonunion members.
The 4-4 vote, the second such tie since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, lets stand an appeals court decision in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. As a result, the ability of unions like the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers to collect fees from all teachers to subsidize their collective bargaining efforts remains unchanged.
"This case was never about what was best for students," Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the NEA, said in a teleconference today with reporters. "We've used collective bargaining to improve the learning conditions of students, class size, school nurses."
The NEA, with more than 3 million members, is the nation's largest teachers union.
The lead plaintiff in the case, Rebecca Friedrichs, a public school teacher in Orange County, Calif., argued that being forced to pay union dues violated her free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution.
The Center for Individual Rights, the public interest law firm that brought the case on behalf of Friedrichs and nine other teachers, vowed to seek a rehearing. "We believe this case is too significant to let a split decision stand and we will file a petition for re-hearing with the Supreme Court," the group's president, Terry Pell, said in a statement.
The president of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, blasted what she called "the right wing's efforts to bust unions."
As NPR's Nina Totenberg reported: Nonunion teachers made up 9 percent of the teaching workforce in union districts in California, "but because the union contract must, by law, also cover them, they are required to pay an amount that covers the cost of negotiating the bread-and-butter benefits they reap from the contract: wages, leave policies, grievance procedures."
Even though nonunion members are not required to pay for other union activities, such as lobbying, the plaintiffs argued that the fees violated their rights of free speech and association.
In their remarks today, neither Weingarten nor Garcia addressed that question of the free speech rights of teachers.
For now, nonunion teachers in 23 states and Washington, D.C., will continue to pay anywhere from $600 to more than $1,000 a year in dues, whether they want to or not.