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With Scalia's Death, Oregon Voters Could Decide On Union Dues

<p>U.S. Supreme Court</p>

U.S. Supreme Court

The sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia this weekend appeared to end the likelihood that the U.S. Supreme Court would act this year to ban mandatory union dues for public employees represented by organized labor.

That doesn't mean those dues will go unchallenged, however.

The court's expected inaction is increasing the odds that union critics will take a measure to the Oregon ballot this year, aimed at making union dues voluntary for more than 250,000 public employees in the state.

The court's five conservative justices spoke approvingly last month of a case brought by a group of California teachers that argued their free-speech rights were violated by paying dues to a union they disagreed with politically. But with Scalia's death, the court now appears deadlocked 4-4 on the case.

Oregon is one of 23 states that require public workers represented by union contracts to at least pay fees covering bargaining costs.

Portland lawyer Jill Gibson said the high court's expected inaction is leading her to redouble efforts toward an initiative that would make dues voluntary for public employees.

"There wasn't as much need to do it before" Scalia's death, Gibson said of her measure, "but now it's critical."

"We're anticipating that she will be on the ballot," said Joe Baessler, political director for the Oregon chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

AFSCME and the state's other public employee unions are powerful political players in the state, and key supporters of Democrats who control most of the state's elected positions. The unions are also major financial backers of a measure headed to the 2016 ballot that would raise taxes on large corporations by some $2.6 billion a year.

In part, union critics hope that by curtailing the flow of union dues they can reduce the political influence of the unions. And putting such a measure on this November's ballot would also force organized labor to divert some of its resources to fight it.

Gibson has a number of hurdles to clear before qualifying for the ballot. She and the unions are fighting in the Oregon Supreme Court over the wording of the ballot title for her initiative. In recent years, she's filed several different versions of her measure and has been unable to get a ballot title that she believes will be attractive to voters.

Depending on when the Supreme Court rules, Gibson may not have much time to gather the 88,184 signatures needed by July 8 to qualify for the November election. Regardless, Gibson said she is confident that she would have the financial support she needs. So far, she has received money from several timber interests.

Heather Conroy, executive director of Local 503 of Service Employees International Union, noted that Oregon voters have repeatedly rejected ballot measures aimed at limiting union paycheck deductions.

Conroy pointed to a Supreme Court decision in 2014 that prohibited mandatory dues for home health care workers supported by public funds. While that reduced the flow of dues to her union, Conroy said, SEIU was still able to gather more contributions for its political action committee and remain as politically influential.

"No matter what gets thrown at us, people are still going to come together and fight for and struggle for what's fair," she said.

Copyright 2016 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Jeff Mapes is a senior political reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, Jeff covered state and national politics for The Oregonian for nearly 32 years. He has covered numerous presidential, congressional, gubernatorial and ballot measure campaigns, as well as many sessions of the Legislature, stretching back to 1985. Jeff graduated from San Jose State University with a B.A. in journalism.