Teachers unions dodge a bullet with Supreme Court’s split decision

The Supreme Court delivered a major victory Tuesday to public unions, like the city teachers union, that will allow them to continue collecting fees even from members who want to opt out.

“The unions have dodged a bullet,” says David Bloomfield a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. “It potentially could have seriously damaged the collective bargaining position of unions in school districts across the country.”

The case was brought by 10 California teachers who argued that they shouldn’t be required to pay fees that support union positions to which they object, and which finance collective bargaining. Many observers assumed the court’s conservative wing would significantly limit the collection of union fees, but the recent death of Justice Antonin Scalia left the court with a 4-4 split, effectively leaving the lower court’s pro-union ruling intact.

Local education experts and teacher unions called the decision a win, but said it also raises the stakes of the upcoming presidential election — and warned that the unions’ fight is not over.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has protected your voice and your ability to join together to negotiate good wages and benefits and to fight for what our students need,” Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, wrote in a letter to union leaders immediately after the decision.

But he cautioned that the 4-4 decision could still be challenged, and that “well-funded” interests were likely to continue the fight. “Today’s ruling won’t stop them,” Mulgrew said.

New York City teachers, along with guidance counselors, school secretaries, and a host of other school staffers, have some amount taken from their paychecks equivalent to union dues — a requirement of state law. Almost all of those who pay are union members: Carl Korn, spokesman for NYSUT, the state teachers union, said less than 3 percent of teachers statewide pay those fees but remain unaffiliated with a union.

A ruling against the unions would have allowed members to refuse to pay those fees, weakening union finances. Such a decision would have had less of an impact in New York than in other states, Bloomfield noted, because the state’s strong union sentiment and relatively high teacher wages would reduce the incentives for teachers to refuse the fees.

Still, if a conservative judge replaces Scalia, it is possible the court could take a similar case and deliver the blow to organized labor that many pro-union groups fear.

On Tuesday, Mulgrew said that the U.S. Senate should give Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s moderate pick to replace Scalia, a fair hearing. Republican Senate leaders have said so far that they will not consider a nominee during Obama’s presidency.

“It’s perhaps a temporary victory,” added Bloomfield, “but given the unknowns regarding the composition of the Court in the coming years, it’s no less important.”