WASHINGTON (CNS) — One of the first tie votes from a Supreme Court reduced to eight members had to do with the extent to which workers must support unions that are obligated to represent them in the workplace.

The case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, revolved around whether public employees such as teachers were required to pay fees to unions even though they choose not to be members. Unions argue that workers should pay what they call “fair share” or “agency shop” fees to cover the cost of representation. Opponents of unions counter that “right to work” laws are needed to protect workers from what they regard as potentially coercive union policies.

“Catholic social teaching does not take an express position on right to work laws,” wrote Clayton Sinyai, director of the Catholic Employer Project for the Catholic Labor Network, in an essay published April 2 by America, a magazine published by the Jesuits.


“What a century of papal social encyclicals do expressly favor, however, is the growth and increase of unions and workers’ associations,” Sinyai said.

In the case, Rebecca Friedrichs, who had served on the executive committee of her union’s local in Orange County, California, had sought to avoid paying any union dues to the California Teachers Association. She had won her case in the initial court proceeding, but lost in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court’s 4-4 tie March 29 upholds the circuit court’s decision in the matter, but the effect of the law limits its scope to the territory of the court: Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington state, plus Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Many union leaders were holding their breath as the case made its way to the high court, fearing that Justice Antonin Scalia would be part of a majority striking down the circuit court’s decision. But when Scalia died Feb. 13, the speculation shifted to how this case — and a host of others — would be decided.

The justices split along ideological lines: Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor voted to uphold the appellate court’s decision, with Chief Justice John Roberts, along with Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas voting to overturn it. Only a one-page note from the high court announced the deadlock.

Sinyai noted that Pope Leo XIII, in his 1891 encyclical “Rerum Novarum,” which ushered in the era of Catholic social teaching, “worried that the modern economy too often allowed the rich and powerful an opportunity to exploit working people. He took consolation in the multiplication of ‘workingmen’s unions’ that helped ameliorate the condition of labor. ‘There are not a few associations of this nature,’ the pope observed, ‘but it were greatly to be desired that they should become more numerous and more efficient.'”

Retired Pope Benedict XVI affirmed this in 2009 in “Caritatis in Veritate,” Sinyai said. “The repeated calls issued within the church’s social doctrine, beginning with ‘Rerum Novarum,’ for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honored today even more than in the past,” he had said in his own encyclical.

Today, there are 26 states that have right-to-work laws on the books, permitting workers in those states to not join the unions that represent them in the workplace. In states without right-to-work laws, individual contracts between employers and unions may have a right-to-work clause, thus forcing unions to recruit to maintain its membership numbers.

A previous Supreme Court decision, Beck v. Communications Workers of America, allows unions members to have deducted from their dues the amount of dues spent on political activity.

“It seems clear that the right-to-work laws under consideration in Wisconsin and various state legislatures will not make ‘workingmen’s unions … become more numerous,’ nor are they consistent with a desire for the “promotion of workers’ associations … even more than in the past.'” Sinyai said in America, quoting the popes.

“Unless they are prepared to offer an alternative method to achieve these ends, it is hard to see how Catholics who respect the message of ‘Rerum Novarum’ and ‘Caritas in Veritate’ can support these right-to-work initiatives.”