As the nation pays its final respects to Antonin Scalia, the brilliant legal scholar and conservative U.S. Supreme Court justice, one interest group breathing a sigh of relief is organized labor, particularly the public employee unions.
That’s because one of the crucial cases likely to be affected by Scalia’s passing is the future of public employee unions. Under a California legal joust that was decided in favor of the unions in the lower courts, a union’s right to charge dues to members who are not union members, but are part of a collective bargaining unit, was up in the air.
While expressing condolences at the passing of Scalia, Bob Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association-Rhode Island, acknowledged that his departure from the court will allow union leaders to take a deep breath.
"If nothing else it gives us a pause, at least for this year," said Walsh. "We do know we still have dedicated opponents on the other side."
The reason Scalia’s vote was important is that the high court is split 5-4 on many crucial topics, including union rights, affirmative action, voting rights, abortion rights and immigration. In oral arguments during the California teacher case in January, the union side took a beating from court conservatives, including Scalia.
No Scalia vote means the case is now likely headed for a 4-4 tie, meaning the appeals court decision backing the unions would prevail.
These so-called agency fees support union negotiations, grievances, legal representation for teachers hauled before state and local education bureaucracies and communication with members –the lifeblood of union bargaining. This part of union dues does not go for political action or support of candidates.
For example, In Rhode Island, NEA members who do not support the teacher union's traditional support for Democratic candidates can withhold that part of their dues from the union. They still have to pay for the collective bargaining aspects of the union, which negotiates wages, hours, work rules and such benefits as health care and sick leave.
NEA-covered teachers who do not support the union’s political action agenda currently pay 85 percent of full dues, which cover collective bargaining, but do not contribute to, say, campaigns of union-backed candidates for state and federal political offices via union political action committees.
The Republican vow not to consider a high court nominee put forward by President Barack Obama effectively sends the union issue and others to voters in the November general election. Democrats Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are both strong supporters of public employee unions, but Republican candidates are not.
"The presidential election is going to decide the fate of this issue," says Walsh.