The Supreme Court Monday will hear one the signature cases of its current term, a challenge to the constitutionality of mandatory public sector union fees.
Though officially a First Amendment question, the case is the apex of a decades-long dispute about the power of public sector unions and their Democratic patrons, as millions of government employees are required by law to pay union dues. As such, the dispute has decidedly partisan implications.
Some observers fear a ruling against the union would deal a deathblow to the political and financial influence of organized labor, prompting charges that the lawsuit is a poorly concealed Republican attack on a powerful liberal constituency.
Rebecca Friedrichs, a school teacher from California, sued her union over the mandatory fees. Her case reached the Supreme Court in 2016, though Justice Antonin Scalia’s unexpected death prevented its definitive resolution.
“I’m a middle class citizen speaking out on my own behalf,” she told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “I’ve lost a lot to fight this battle and I’m not anybody’s pawn.”
The Friedrichs case was argued in Jan. 2016. After Scalia died just one month later the eight-member Court deadlocked four to four. When the justices evenly divide, the decision of the lower court is automatically upheld.
The bench was restored to its full complement of nine following Justice Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation, so the Court agreed to rehear the matter and issue a definitive decision. If the high court once again divides along ideological lines, Gorsuch will cast the deciding vote.
In Monday’s argument a different public employee, Mark Janus, will be the lead plaintiff. Janus is a child support specialist from Springfield, Ill., who pays mandatory dues to the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the largest public sector union in the country.
A 1977 precedent called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education allows unions to collect mandatory fees from non-members for dispute resolution and collective bargaining. Though such fees may not be used for partisan causes, critics say all union activity — especially collective bargaining — is inherently political, making Abood naive and outdated.
Most observers agree the plaintiffs appear to have the required five votes to strike down Abood, though organized labor and the Court’s four Democratic appointees would protest such an outcome vigorously.
A decision in the case, Janus v. AFSCME, is expected by June.
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