Supreme Court deals big setback to public labor unions

Author: Associated Press - June 27, 2018 - Updated: June 27, 2018


In this Monday, June 25, 2018 photo, people gather at the Supreme Court awaiting a decision in an Illinois union dues case, Janus vs. AFSCME, in Washington. The Supreme Court says government workers can’t be forced to contribute to labor unions that represent them in collective bargaining, dealing a serious financial blow to organized labor. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that government workers can’t be forced to contribute to labor unions that represent them in collective bargaining, dealing a serious financial blow to organized labor.

The justices are scrapping a 41-year-old decision that had allowed states to require that public employees pay some fees to unions that represent them, even if the workers choose not to join the unions.

The 5-4 decision fulfills a longtime wish of conservatives to get rid of the so-called fair share fees that non-members pay to unions in roughly two dozen states, not including Colorado. The court ruled that the laws violate the First Amendment by compelling workers to support unions they may disagree with.

“States and public-sector unions may no longer extract agency fees from nonconsenting employees,” Justice Samuel Alito said in his majority opinion for the court’s five conservative justices.

President Donald Trump weighed in minutes after the decision was handed down, while Alito still was reading a summary of it from the bench.

“Big loss for the coffers of the Democrats!” Trump said in a tweet.

In dissent, Justice Elena Kagan wrote of the big impact of the decision.

“There is no sugarcoating today’s opinion. The majority overthrows a decision entrenched in this Nation’s law – and its economic life – for over 40 years,” she said. “As a result, it prevents the American people, acting through their state and local officials, from making important choices about workplace governance. And it does so by weaponizing the First Amendment, in a way that unleashes judges, now and in the future, to intervene in economic and regulatory policy.”

The court’s three other liberal justices joined the dissent.

The court split 4-4 the last time it considered the issue in 2016 following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

At issue in this case was the power of labor unions to collect “fair share” or “agency fees” from public employees who have opted out of the union in their workplace. Mark Janus – a public employee in Illinois – challenged the constitutionality of the law compelling him to pay these union fees, arguing it violates his right to free speech because collective bargaining with the government affects public policy issues and thus is inherently political in nature. Thus, these mandatory dues to fund collective bargaining constitute forced political speech.

Though Colorado is not a state that compels union membership by public employees, even for teachers, the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity called the decision a win for for state’s public employees.

The ruling certainly could have political ramifications in Colorado, however, if it affects unions’ abilities across the country to back candidates and causes with links to state.

“This decision is vindication that our efforts supporting more choice in the workplace are the right ones,” said AFP-CO state director Jesse Mallory. “If workers want to be represented by a union and pay dues, that’s their choice. But at least now, they will truly have that choice. We hope the court’s decision will jumpstart a dialogue in Denver and throughout the state that leads to more worker freedom.”

Denver-based Service Employees International Union Local 105 president Ron Ruggiero said the high court, instead, “weakened the voice of working people in our economy and gave more power to the super wealthy and corporations.”

“By stripping away workers’ right to democratically decide how to fund their workplace organizations, this misguided decision undermines workplace democracy, he continued. “The good news is working people are resilient and the thirst for freedom and fairness at work isn’t going anywhere. No politician or Supreme Court justice will stop workers from organizing to unrig our economic and political system from benefiting those at the top. This abhorrent decision will not stop us.”

Colorado House Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Democrat from Denver, and House majority leader KC Becker of Boulder issued statements. Duran called Wednesday “a sad day in America.”

“This disappointing ruling is a setback for collective bargaining all across America,” Speaker Crisanta Duran said. “For more than a century, organized labor has fought for equal pay for women, affordable health care and retirement security that workers can count on,” she said.

Said Becker, “This misguided ruling will make it easier for employers to pursue a divide-and-conquer strategy and undermine unions’ ability to effectively represent workers, We need to be making it easier, not harder, for workers to come together and fight for good wages and benefits, and to build a strong middle class in our country.”

Organized labor is a big supporter of Democratic candidates and interests. Last year, unions strongly opposed Justice Neil Gorsuch’s nomination by Trump. Gorsuch was in the majority on Wednesday.

The unions say the outcome could affect more than 5 million government workers in about two dozen states and the District of Columbia.

The case involving Illinois state government worker Mark Janus is similar to the one the justices took up in 2016. At that time, the court appeared to be ready to overrule a 1997 high court decision that serves as the legal foundation for the fair share fees. But Scalia’s death left the court tied, and a lower court ruling in favor of the fees remained in place.

The unions argued that fair share fees pay for collective bargaining and other work the union does on behalf of all employees, not just its members.

More than half the states already have right-to-work laws banning mandatory fees, but most members of public-employee unions are concentrated in states that don’t, including California, New York, and Illinois.

Labor leaders fear that not only will workers who don’t belong to a union stop paying fees, but that some union members might decide to stop paying dues if they could in essence get the union’s representation for free.

A recent study by Frank Manzo of the Illinois Public Policy Institute and Robert Bruno of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign estimated that public-sector unions could lose more than 700,000 members over time as a result of the ruling and that unions also could suffer a loss of political influence that could depress wages as well.

Associated Press

Associated Press