Public employee unions dodged a bulldozer yesterday when the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it had deadlocked 4 to 4 in Freidrichs v. California Teachers Ass’n, the case challenging the constitutionality of compulsory union dues for public employees. On January 12, we wrote that the Supreme Court was poised to end compulsory dues for California teachers, reversing the 9th Circuit decision in Freidrichs and overturning 40 years of the Court’s own precedent. That, of course, was before the death of Justice Antonin Scalia on February 13.
Oh, what a difference an empty chair makes. Scalia was certain to be the fifth vote in favor of ending compulsory dues on First Amendment grounds. Now, with a 4-4 tie, the 9th Circuit opinion stands, and in California (along with 20 other states) public employee unions can continue to force payment of dues under threat of firing.
The unions know that without government coercion, it will be impossible to maintain the cash flow and political influence they currently enjoy. In those states where compulsory dues have been abolished, union collections have dropped by as much as half when dues become voluntary. For now, however, the unions can breathe easy. It will take at least a few years for the issue to percolate back to the Supreme Court, and the result at that time will likely depend on which president fills the empty chair.