The Supreme Court will consider limiting the power of government employee unions to collect fees from non-members in a case that labor officials fear could threaten membership and further weaken union clout.In the last week of June the justices announced they will hear an appeal from a group of California teachers who say it violates their First Amendment rights to have to pay any fees if they disagree with a union’s position and don’t want to join in.

The teachers are urging the court to overturn a 38-year-old legal precedent that said unions can require non-members to pay for bargaining costs as long as the fees don’t go toward political purposes. Public workers in half the states currently are required to pay “fair share” fees if they are represented by a union, even if they are not members.

But the high court has raised doubts about the viability of that regime in two cases over the past four years. The court has stopped short of overturning the 1977 case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education case, but in a 5-4 opinion last year, Justice Samuel Alito called Abood “questionable on several grounds." Alito said that a “bedrock principle” of the First Amendment is that “no person in this country may be compelled to subsidize speech by a third party that he or she does not wish to support.”

The lead plaintiff in the case at bar is a public school teacher in Orange County, California, who says she resigned from the California Teachers Association because it takes positions that “are not in the best interests of me or my community.”The union says the fees are necessary because it has a duty to represent all teachers at the bargaining table, even those who are not part of the union.

A federal district court ruled against her and the other challengers, saying the outcome was lear under Abood. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court’s rationale in 1977 for allowing fees was to help promote labor peace and prevent non-members from “free riding,” since the union has a legal duty to represent all workers.

Unions are referring to the lawsuit as yet another effort to weaken labor rights. A ruling in favor of the teachers challenging the fees could sap finances at all unions representing teachers, firefighters and other government workers, according to labor leaders and other experts.

“When unions are required to provide representation, if people don’t have to pay for that, a lot of them are going to opt for that free option and that’s going to cause enormous problems for the viability of unions,” said Benjamin Sachs, a professor at Harvard Law School specializing in labor law.

We will continue to monitor the outcome of this case, in addition to what, if any, local effects might result.