WASHINGTON, Jan 11 (Reuters) - Conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices on Monday voiced support for a challenge to state laws that force non-union workers to pay fees to public-sector unions in a case that could erode organized labor's clout.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy, two key votes on the nine-member court, indicated during an 80-minute oral argument in the case involving California teachers that they could side with the three other conservative justices in delivering a ruling overturning a 1977 high court precedent.
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U.S. conservatives have long sought to curb the influence of unions representing public employees like police, firefighters and teachers that often support the Democratic Party and liberal causes. The case before the justices was spearheaded by a conservative group called the Center for Individual Rights.
A ruling allowing non-union workers to stop paying "agency fees" equivalent to union dues, currently mandatory under state law, would deprive the public sector unions of millions of dollars, reducing their income and political power.
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Both Roberts and Kennedy appeared unsympathetic to the California Teachers Association's argument that non-members would become "free-riders" if not required to pay the fees to fund collective bargaining activities because they would benefit from collective bargaining without having to pay for it.
Kennedy said that non-members currently are "compelled riders" if they disagree with the union's stances on various issues. Roberts said the issue of "free-riders" was "insignificant."
The 10 teachers that filed the lawsuit in 2013 are asking the justices to overturn a 1977 Supreme Court ruling in the case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education 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.
Non-members can opt out of paying the union's political activities. But several of the justices hinted at the difficulties of separating out political issues in a way that would not infringe upon the free-speech rights of non-members who disagree with the union.
Roberts and Scalia both seemed skeptical at the suggestion unions would collapse without the fees paid by non-union employees, in part because such fees are already banned in the 25 states that have what is known as "right-to-work" laws. Federal employee unions also cannot collect such fees.
The court's liberal members defended the current practice, noting that the justices usually think twice before overturning such a long-standing precedent.
"You come here with a heavy burden," Justice Elena Kagan told the teachers' lawyer, Michael Carvin.
The dispute pits non-union teachers and the Christian Educators Association International against the California Teachers Association, an influential union with 325,000 members. The lead plaintiff is Rebecca Friedrichs, an elementary school teacher in Anaheim who quit the union in 2012.
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 teachers union 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.
The non-union teachers appealed to the Supreme Court after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the union in November 2014.
Among public sector workers, 35.7 percent belong to unions, compared to 6.6 percent in the private sector, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Roughly three-quarters of the estimated 7.2 million public sector union members are in states without "right-to-work" laws.
A ruling in the case is due by the end of June.
The case is Friedrichs et al, v. California Teachers Association, et al, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 14-915.