US Supreme Court set to hear challenge to public sector unions

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Supreme Court Union Fee Case Could Cripple Organized Labor

(Reuters) -- The U.S. Supreme Court will consider on Monday a conservative legal challenge targeting public sector unions when the justices take up a case brought by non-union teachers in California who object to being compelled to pay for collective bargaining.

The dispute pits 10 public school teachers and the Christian Educators Association International against the California Teachers Association, an influential union with 325,000 members and a history of backing liberal political causes.

The case could erode organized labor's influence by allowing public sector workers who are not union members but are forced under state law to pay "agency fees" equivalent to union dues to stop providing this money. This would reduce the income and political clout of public sector unions.

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Such a ruling would apply in 25 U.S. states that do not already have what is known as "right-to-work" laws that prohibit workers from being forced to pay fees to a union.

A ruling in favor of the non-union teachers would be a blow to organized labor because unionized teachers and other civil servants in states without right-to-work laws comprise its main power base.

The 10 teachers assert that California law violates non-union workers' free-speech rights under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment by requiring them to pay the "agency fees" toward collective bargaining activities.

The teachers who joined the lawsuit are asking the nine justices to overturn a 1977 Supreme Court ruling that allowed public-sector unions to collect fees from workers who do not want representation as long as the money is not spent on political activities.

San Bernardino County teacher Karen Cuen, one of the plaintiffs, quit the union in 1994. That means she already opted out of paying for political activities. But she said other union spending is problematic, too.

"I think pretty much everything the union does is political. I feel like being a public employee we shouldn't be bargaining with taxpayer money. There's an inherent conflict of interest," Cuen said.

Eric Heins, the union's president, noted that state law requires the union to represent all workers during collective bargaining, the process in which unions negotiate contracts with employers on behalf of employees, regardless of whether they are members.

Undermining the current system would mean some workers would benefit from what the union negotiates on their behalf but they would "not have to pay a dime," Heins added.

The Supreme Court will hear an 80-minute oral argument on Monday, with a ruling due by the end of June.

Related: See Seattle teachers on strike this past September:

13 PHOTOS
Seattle teacher's strike
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US Supreme Court set to hear challenge to public sector unions
A member of the Seattle Education Association, the union that represents striking teachers from the Seattle School District, wears a union t-shirt as members sign in to receive voting cards, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015, during a gathering at a meeting hall in Seattle to discuss a tentative contract agreement that was reached with the district Tuesday morning, the fifth day of the strike. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
CORRECTS DATE TO TUESDAY, SEPT 15, Striking Seattle teachers and supporters march on a picket line Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015, at Loyal Heights Elementary School in Seattle. Seattle teachers announced Tuesday that they reached a tentative agreement with the city's school district, but said they're remaining on picket lines pending the deal's approval. (AP Photo/Phuong Le)
Striking Seattle School District teachers and other educators walk a picket line on a pedestrian overpass, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, near Franklin High School in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
FILE - In this Sept. 10, 2015, file photo, striking Seattle School District teachers and other educators walk a picket line past an image of Martin Luther King Jr., at Franklin High School in Seattle. The city opened more of its community centers Monday, Sept. 14, 2015, to help Seattle parents who were scrambling for child care as a teacher strike entered its fourth day. Several of the centers quickly filled, forcing them to turn families away. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Striking Seattle School District teachers and other educators walk a picket line, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, near Franklin High School in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Striking Seattle School District teachers and other educators walk a picket line on a pedestrian overpass, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, near Franklin High School in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Striking Seattle School District teachers and other educators walk a picket line, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, near Franklin High School in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Striking Seattle School District teachers and other educators walk a picket line on a pedestrian overpass, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, near Franklin High School in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Striking Seattle School District teachers and other educators walk a picket line, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, near Franklin High School in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Striking Seattle School District teachers and other educators walk a picket line on a pedestrian overpass, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, in front of Franklin High School in Seattle. The strike comes as teachers in Seattle have gone six years without a cost-of-living pay increase. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Ever Eugenir, right, an instructional assistant who works with students learning to speak English at Franklin High School, stands with other striking Seattle School District teachers on a picket line in front of the school, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, in front of Franklin High School in Seattle. Eugenir made his own sign with the word "strike" shown in Spanish and Tagalog, two of the languages spoken by students he teachers. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Teachers at West Seattle Elementary School begin walking a picket line Wednesday morning, Sept. 9, 2015, in Seattle after last-minute negotiations over wages and other issues failed to avert a strike in Washington state's largest school district. Classes for 53,000 Seattle Public Schools students were canceled Wednesday, on the scheduled first day of school. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
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