(CN) - A critical Supreme Court hearing Monday seemed to spell the end for the ability of government-employee unions to make employees pay bargaining fees.
Rebecca Friedrichs led a group of 10 California teachers and the Christian Educators Association International in the case at hand, claiming that the California Teachers Association forces teachers who opted out of joining its ranks to pay nearly $1,000 in union fees per year.
California is one of 23 states, including the District of Columbia, that has a law requiring public employees to pay union agency fees even if they chose not to join the unions.
Saying the fees are meant to implore good-faith collective bargaining, the unions contend that they fund the negotiation of employment-contracts from which all government workers, whether union members or not, inherently benefit.
A ruling from court this term on the issue stands to impact both the powerful 325,000-member teachers union in California, and the way public employee unions operate across the country.
Friedrichs and her attorneys at Jones Day meanwhile say government collective bargaining is essentially lobbying paid for by taxpayers, a way of forcing union-opposed teachers to subsidize actions with which they do not agree.
If the high court rules in their favor, employee labor unions would be primed to lose millions of dollars in fees.
"The problem is that everything that is collectively bargained with the government is within the political sphere," Justice Antonin Scalia said, according to a transcript of today's 80-minute hearing. "What is bargained for is in all cases a matter of public interest."
The California Teachers Association derives its power to charge such fees from the high court's unanimous 1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.
Jones Day's Michael Carvin called upon the justices Monday to overturn "Abood's authorization of this clear First Amendment violation."
The court must do so "both to end this ongoing deprivation of basic speech and association rights, and to restore consistency and predictability to the court's First Amendment jurisprudence," Carvin added.
California Solicitor General Edward Dumont countered that it is vital for the state to collectively bargain with one union, and that banning the bargaining fees would negatively impact employee unions.
Chief Justice John Roberts disagreed with the attempt to characterize the union's opponents as freeloaders, telling Dumont the "free-ride concern that's been raised is really insignificant."
Noting that federal-employee unions do not charge similar agency fees to nonmembers, Justice Scalia asked Dumont why California should be any different.
The court's liberal justices said overturning the 1977 precedent could affect mandatory bar-association fees along with millions of public-sector employees nationwide.
"It would require overruling a host of other cases," Justice Stephen Breyer said, "and that's a big deal."
The Supreme Court has moved away from the Abood ruling in recent years. In 2012, the court ruled 7-2 that another California union couldn't compel additional fees. Two years later, it ruled 5-4 that certain Illinois health care workers do not have to pay dues to employee unions.
The court's ruling is expected in June and it could send the nation's more than 4.5 million teachers unions' members scrambling to reinvent sources of funding.
In 2013, the California Teachers Association collected more than $170 million in fees.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.