In The Balance

The Supreme Court threat to gut public sector unions is dead.

The Supreme Court Threat To Gut Public Sector Unions Is Dead

Today, the Supreme Court handed down a 4-4 split decision in the case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, affirming a lower court ruling in support of workers who have joined together to work for better wages and benefits that help them sustain their families. The decision came in the form of a single-sentence order, which said the decision of a lower court rejecting this effort to defund public sector unions “is affirmed by an equally divided court.” Even as Republicans plan new attempts to undermine unions and American workers, today’s ruling provides some relief to the more than 7 million public sector workers that enjoy the many economic benefits associated with union membership.

Anti-union lawmakers and conservative organizations in states across the country have long been fighting to erode the power of unions by advancing so-called right-to-work laws that inhibit workers from collectively bargaining for better wages, benefits, and protections under the guise of ‘choice.’ Friedrichs was a partisan attempt to impose a right-to-work standard on all public sector employees, which could have dealt a harmful blow to already-struggling public-employee unions.

Specifically at issue in Friedrichs was whether non-members who receive the benefits of union representation should be required to pay their fair share of the costs of obtaining the benefits of being in a union. The Supreme Court’s split decision means an almost 40-year-old decision protecting public sector unions from Abood v. Detroit Board of Education remains standing.

We’ve detailed the relationship between unions and the middle class before, but it’s worth repeating. Union membership is an important factor in economic mobility and unions have been essential in establishing fair labor standards. The average worker in a right-to-work state makes about $1,560 less annually than the average worker in a state without such a law. The rate of employer-sponsored health insurance is 2.6 percentage points lower in right-to-work states, and the rate of employer-sponsored pensions is 4.8 percentage points lower. That means all workers, not just government workers, benefit from today’s Supreme Court decision.

But the Supreme Court’s split decision is a fresh reminder of Senate Republicans obstruction around the Court vacancy. More split decisions like today’s could create chaos and confusion by leading to different laws impacting people in different parts of the country. At best, the Supreme Court will never actually be able to rule on key issues facing our country instead leaving lower court decisions standing. With more than 100 million Americans who will be affected by cases currently before the Court, the stakes are too high.

BOTTOM LINE: One of the best ways to raise wages for middle-class workers is through strong unions and today’s Supreme Court decision supports the millions of workers who have joined together to work for better wages and benefits. But the Court’s split decision shines a light on the high stakes of an eight member Supreme Court and the need for Senate Republicans to fulfill their constitutional duty of considering the president’s nominee for the Supreme Court.

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