U.S. Supreme Court

By Bob Egelko
Published: November 26, 2016
Updated:   November 26, 2016 – 6:00am

With his first Supreme Court appointment, President-elect Donald Trump will be in a position to deal a severe blow to unions representing government workers, the stronghold of organized labor in the United States.

Unions won a reprieve in March when the court, after the death of its leading conservative, Justice Antonin Scalia, deadlocked 4-4 on a lawsuit by nonunion teachers in California. They were challenging the fees they had to pay to the California Teachers Association, in various districts, for the costs of representing them in negotiations over pay and working conditions. That left in place an appeals court ruling upholding the fees.

But the issue remains alive in other cases that could reach the Supreme Court within a year. Trump, who has promised to appoint justices in the mold of Scalia, said during his presidential campaign that he liked “right-to-work” laws, which would make union membership and dues voluntary for all workers.

“It is better for the people,” Trump told a radio interviewer in February. “You are not paying the big fees to the unions.”

Although the labor dispute turns on a constitutional issue — whether union fees paid by government employees are a form of speech protected by the First Amendment — its partisan implications are clear. A ruling against the unions would cost them funding from hundreds of thousands of nonmembers and the political clout that goes with it, largely in favor of Democrats.

If the court ends mandatory fees for nonmembers, public employee unions’ “ability to function as collective bargaining representative and political opposition will be crippled,” said William Gould, a Stanford University labor law professor, chairman of the state farm labor board and former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board. Gould signed arguments supporting the unions in the California teachers case.

Such a ruling, countered Patrick Semmens, vice president of the National Right to Work Foundation, would “make unions more accountable to their members.”

Employees’ constitutional right of free speech is violated when they “are forced, as a condition of government employment, to pay any money at all to a union they disagree with,” said Semmens, whose organization represents nonunion members challenging the fees in federal courts.

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