WASHINGTON — The U.S Supreme Court today takes up a highly politically charged case that could cripple public unions in Massachusetts and across the country.

The justices will hear a case brought by a group of California schoolteachers claiming that their free speech rights are being violated by a state requirement that they pay fees to their union even though they are not members.

Roughly half of all unionized workers are in the public sector, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And about half of all states, including Massachusetts, have rules requiring all public sector workers to pay union dues, or “agency fees,” to cover public unions’ collective bargaining costs.

Unions and public officials in those states defend the fees, saying they allow them to negotiate for employment benefits enjoyed by all public employees, not just union members. Only union members pay dues that fund political activities.

But the challengers say it’s impossible to separate their funds from the public unions’ political actions.

The court has previously upheld such fees, but in a recent ruling Justice Samuel Alito indicated that the court may have gotten that ruling wrong, and could be willing to overturn it.

That’s what the challengers’ lead attorney Michael Carvin, who also represented plaintiffs challenging Obama­care’s federal exchange subsidies last year, will urge the court to do today.

“This is about making unions more accountable to their workers,” Vincent Vernuccio, director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center, which wrote a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the challengers. “In many cases unions fought and lobbied to be the exclusive representative of all workers in the public sector.”

The Obama administration will join the state of California and the teachers union in urging the court to uphold the fees.

Striking down the agency fees “would require public employers and unions to find new sources of funding — for example, by raising dues for union members,” U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli argued in the brief.

Union officials said the loss of agency fees would be crippling.

“This case is not about political activity. It is about union-busting — about making it harder for workers to join together, to speak up for each other, and to make life better for themselves and their families,” Fred Redmond, vice president of the United Steelworkers union.

“These nonmembers don’t object to the higher wages and benefits they enjoy as a result of collective bargaining,” Redmond said. “They just want to freeload instead of paying their fair share of the costs.”


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