Five conservative justices of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against forced public sector union dues Wednesday in a case with massive implications for the labor movement and a promise of new opportunities for government efficiencies.
Before the decision in Janus v. AFSCME, unions could require mandatory dues payments from workers in an organized workplace. But the latest ruling means this privilege is now gone in the public sector, where unions are strongest.
The decision is a blow to public sector unions’ financial power, and also to Democratic Party candidates and committees, which routinely receive more than 90 percent of labor campaign contributions.
The decision could also clear the way for conservative reformers, whose efforts to streamline and reduce government are typically defeated by public sector unions such as the American Federation of Government Employees.
Illinois state worker Mark Janus argued that the forced dues payments violated his constitutional rights. Four liberal justices voted to uphold the power of unions to force dues payments from employees who don’t support the partisan political activities of organized labor.
“Under Illinois law, public employees are forced to subsidize a union, even if they choose not to join and strongly object to the positions the union takes in collective bargaining and related activities,” the decision states. “We conclude that this arrangement violates the free speech rights of nonmembers by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern.”
The Supreme Court decision sets a precedent at the highest court that reverses decades of case law. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) was challenged in the case, but the implications extend to every public sector union, including the massive National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers.
Critics have argued that unions should be allowed to take fees because they are critical to protecting workers. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (NRTW), which assisted Janus with the Liberty Justice Center (LJC), argued that workers are being forced to accept union representation against their will, and then are charged for it.
Public sector unions were specifically targeted because they deal directly with the government. Labor unions currently can require dues in states without right-to-work protections, so long as nonmembers have the option of paying a nonpolitical fair-share fee.
The fair-share fee can only cover the cost of representing that worker and not union political activities. Janus and his lawyer argued that public sector collective bargaining and political lobbying are indistinguishable because they both deal with the allocation of government resources.
The court previously upheld the union position when ruling in the 1977 case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. That decision found that unions could require payments from nonmembers while also establishing the nonpolitical fair-share fee.
Labor union supporters often argue against optional payments during court and legislative battles with the free-rider argument, saying that when a union wins the right to represent a workplace, it must represent and benefit all workers.
“The case aims to erode the freedom to form unions to improve our lives and the communities we serve,” AFSCME argued. “Real freedom is about making a decent living from our hard work; it’s also about having time to take a loved one to the doctor, attend a parent-teacher conference, and retire in dignity. The corporate special interests behind this case do not believe that working people should have the freedom to negotiate a fair return on their work.”
Labor unions and their supporters have also argued that the case is a corporate scheme to erode worker rights. The Service Employees International Union claimed June 5 that powerful billionaires are using the case to divide working people and further rig the economy against them.
The U.S. Supreme Court in recent years has begun applying a stricter standard on what constitutes political activities. Harris v. Quinn dealt with whether home health care providers could be unionized as state workers. Knox v. Service Employees International Union dealt more specifically with what the standard should be generally.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard an identical case in 2016. Rebecca Friedrichs and nine other teachers lost their case against mandatory payments after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia split the court. President Donald Trump nominated Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was confirmed by the Republican-majority Senate to fill the Scalia seat last year.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported earlier this year that the union membership rate is at 34.4 percent for public sector workers, compared to only 6.5 percent for the private-sector.