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Supreme Court Deals Blow To Government Unions

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday 5-4 that states may not force public employees to pay agency fees to unions of which they are not a member.


J. Scott Applewhite/AP
People gather at the Supreme Court awaiting a decision in an Illinois union dues case, Janus v. AFSCME, on Monday.

In a blow to organized labor, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that government workers who choose not to join a union cannot be charged for the cost of collective bargaining.

The vote was a predictable 5-to-4 margin. Justice Samuel Alito wrote the majority opinion with the court’s conservatives joining him.

“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,” Alito wrote. “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 decision reverses a four-decades-old precedent and upends laws in 22 states.

The plaintiff in the case, Mark Janus, a child-support specialist for the state of Illinois, challenged a requirement that government workers who opt out of a union still have to pay partial dues to cover the union’s cost of negotiation and other functions.

In 1977, the Supreme Court had drawn a distinction between such mandatory “agency fees” and other, voluntary union dues, which might be used for lobbying or other political activity.

Wednesday’s decision erases that distinction. The court’s conservative wing found that negotiations by public sector unions are inherently political and nonmembers cannot be compelled to pay for them.

The high court heard a similar case in 2016, but deadlocked 4 to 4 after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, giving public sector unions a two-year reprieve.

While the Obama administration sided with the union in that earlier case, the Trump administration backed Janus and his fellow union holdouts.

Wednesday’s ruling is a victory for conservative activists who have been waging a multipronged battle against organized labor — and a potentially crippling blow for public sector unions.

“This case is yet another example of corporate interests using their power and influence to launch a political attack on working people and rig the rules of the economy in their own favor,” Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, said in a statement when the case reached the high court.

Government workers have been a relative stronghold in an otherwise shrinking labor movement. More than a third of the public sector workforce is unionized, compared with less than 7 percent in the private sector.

A survey by the AFSCME — the union Janus would have to pay into — found that if agency fees were no longer mandatory, 15 percent of employees would stop paying them while 35 percent would continue to pay. The balance of workers were “on the fence.”

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