The U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday announced a 4-4 tie -- leaving an appeals court's decision intact -- on a case that could have dealt a significant blow to the unions that represent faculty members and other employees at public colleges and universities. The plaintiffs in the case wanted a court ruling barring mandatory payments to public employee unions, saying that such requirements deny the free speech rights of union members who disagree with the union.
Prior to the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court appeared headed to such a ruling, which could have hurt the finances of faculty unions and other unions in public higher education. But an appeals court ruling, citing a prior Supreme Court ruling that upheld such payments, rejected the plaintiffs' argument. In Supreme Court ties, the lower ruling stands. Supporters of the required fees note that unions represent all employees in their units, and that their leaders and policies are the result of union elections -- so all members do have the right to help decide various positions.
The case involved California schoolteachers, but a ruling likely would have affected public employees generally.
A brief by the American Federation of Teachers (which has both higher education and K-12 members) and the American Association of University Professors opposed the suit and urged the Supreme Court to permit mandatory fees. The brief said that the aim of the lawsuit was to weaken education unions: “It requires no leap of imagination to predict that a declaration from this court that public sector workers are entitled to a free pass on paying their fair share of union expenses will result in a substantial decrease in revenue.” Such a loss of revenue, the brief argued, would leave unions in a weaker position to perform all of their duties representing academic employees.
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