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Top court vacancy gives unions unexpected victory

The U.S. Supreme Court is shown March 29, 2016 in Washington, DC following the first 4-4 tie in a case before the court. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — In the clearest sign yet of the impact of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, labor unions on Tuesday won a high-profile Supreme Court dispute they once seemed all but certain to lose.

The justices announced they were divided 4-4 in a case that considered whether unions representing government employees can collect fees from workers who choose not to join. The split vote leaves in place an appeals court ruling that upheld the practice.

The result is an unlikely victory for organized labor after it seemed very likely the high court would rule 5-4 to overturn a system that’s been in place nearly 40 years. The court is operating with only eight justices after the death of Scalia, who had been expected to rule against the unions.

The one-sentence opinion does not identify how each justice voted. It simply upholds a decision from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

But it’s a major blow to conservative groups that have spent years pushing the court to overrule a 1977 precedent that allows unions to collect “fair share” fees from members and non-members alike that cover the costs of collective bargaining.

The decision came as Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland was to meet with Republican Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, his first meeting with a GOP senator. President Barack Obama nominated Garland to fill the vacant seat, but Republican leaders in the Senate say they won’t hold confirmation hearings or vote on the pick until a new president is elected.

The union case is among a handful of key disputes in which Scalia’s vote was expected to tip the balance toward a result that favored conservatives. During arguments in the case in January, Scalia and the court’s four other conservatives made it clear they were ready to deal a blow to the unions.

Since Supreme Court decisions are not final until they are handed down, nothing Scalia did or said in connection with the case before his death mattered in the outcome.

Gov. Bruce Rauner today in LeRoy described the Supreme Courts decision as “tragic” and “a loss for freedom of speech and freedom of political expression in the United States.”

The Court’s decision is at odds with the governor’s Turnaround Agenda, which calls for “employee empowerment laws.” These laws are aimed to help laborers who have declined to join a union, exempting them from paying union dues. The governor said he would not give up on these laws, and instead insisted that he would pursue litigation to ensure that those who do not want to join unions will not be forced to pay into them.

In the case, California teachers backed by a conservative group said being forced to pay union fees violated the free speech rights of nonmembers who disagree with the unions’ positions. The high court had raised doubts about the viability of the 1977 precedent, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, but it stopped short of overturning it in two recent cases. In Abood, the court said public workers who choose not to join a union can be required to pay for bargaining costs if the fees don’t go toward political purposes.

The lead plaintiff was Rebecca Friedrichs, a public school teacher from Orange County, California, who said she resigned from the California Teachers Association over differences but was still required to pay about $650 a year to cover bargaining costs.

The case affects more than 5 million workers in 23 states and Washington, D.C., who are represented at the bargaining table by public sector unions. Labor officials worried the potential loss of tens of millions of dollars in fees would reduce their power to bargain for higher wages and benefits for government employees.

Labor leaders called the lawsuit part of a coordinated effort by conservative groups to weaken labor rights. Union officials say the fees are necessary because the organization has a legal duty to represent all teachers, even those who are not members of the union.

Lee Saunders, president of the American Federal of State, Local and Municipal Employees, called the case a “political attack” on unions.

“AFSCME members are more resolved than ever to band together and stand up to future attempts to silence the voices of working families,” he said.

Gov. Rauner told reporters today this case presented “a fundamental issue” and that “there are many AFSCME members who would not – don’t want to pay union dues” and “were kinds threatened and forced in [the union].” In the meantime, the governor said that he will “continue the fight for the freedom of political expression and the right of free speech for government employees.”

Contributing: Chicago Sun-Times reporter Alice Keefe