By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices on Monday expressed support for a conservative challenge to fees that public-sector unions collect from non-members to pay for collective bargaining in a case involving California teachers that could erode the power of organized labor.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy, two key votes on the nine-member court, both indicated they could side with the three other conservative justices in delivering a major blow to public sector unions by overturning a 1977 Supreme Court precedent.
The case could undercut 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.
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 currently non-members are "compelled riders" if they disagree with the union's stances on various issues.
Non-members can already 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.
U.S. conservatives have long sought to curb the influence of public sector unions representing 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.
Twenty-five U.S. states already have what is known as "right-to-work" laws that prohibit workers from being forced to pay fees to a union.
The dispute pits 10 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.
Those teachers 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.
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 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.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)