The U.S. Supreme Court has decided to take up a case Thursday which aims at ending mandatory union dues for all public-sector workers.
The case seeks to reverse a decades-old ruling by the court which affirmed the right of labor groups to collect fees from workers who did not want to belong to their workplace union. Lead plaintiff Mark Janus filed the lawsuit alongside two other Illinois state workers.
The lawsuit argues that mandatory union fees in the public sector are a violation of the first amendment. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) is the primary union named in the lawsuit, but the ultimate goal is to end mandatory union dues for all public-sector workers.
Employees who do not wish to belong to their workplace union can be required to pay a fee in many states. That fee can only cover collective bargaining costs and not political activities. The lawsuit argues public-sector collective bargaining and political lobbying are indistinguishable.
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the lawsuit March 21 by affirming an earlier district court decision. The decision opened the door for an appeal to the Supreme Court. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (NRTW) has been assisting the state workers alongside the Liberty Justice Center (LJC).
“With the Supreme Court agreeing to hear the Janus case, we are now one step closer to freeing over 5 million public sector teachers, police officers, firefighters, and other employees from the injustice of being forced to subsidize a union as a condition of working for their own government,” NRTW President Mark Mix said in a statement provided by InsideSources. “We are hopeful that by the end of this Supreme Court term, the High Court will finally end this anomaly and fully protect the First Amendment rights of public sector workers against an injustice that has existed for over half a century.”
Labor unions and their supporters argue that optional dues encourage workers to free-ride. Unions are obligated to represent everyone in a workplace once they get voted in as the exclusive representative regardless of whether they pay. States that have right-to-work protections have outlawed the practice of mandatory dues or fees.
“Every union-represented teacher, police officer, caregiver or other public service worker may choose whether or not to join the union — but the union is required to negotiate on behalf of all workers whether they join or not,” AFSCME noted July 7. “Since all the workers benefit from the union’s gains, it’s only fair that everyone chip in toward the cost.”
The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the union position in the 1977 case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. The decision also established the exception for political spending. The free-ride argument is used against both lawsuits challenging mandatory union payments and right-to-work laws.
Labor unions often neglect to mention that being an exclusive representative isn’t the only way unions can organize. Member only unions aren’t obligated to represent nonmembers or anyone not paying dues or fees. The downside is they lose monopoly rights which block other labor groups from trying to organize established bargaining units.
California teacher Rebecca Friedrichs challenged her union in a similar case that went to the Supreme Court last year. The court became split after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. A tied decision defaults to the lower courts, which ruled against the lawsuit.
Justice Neil Gorsuch has since filled the vacant seat and is expected to rule on the side of the state workers. Friedrichs expressed her support for the new case in a legal brief she submitted to the court July 19. She added in the brief that parents and educators no longer have a say in her public schools because of the teachers’ unions.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) also submitted a legal brief to the court July 10 arguing that unions often use forced union dues to pay for conferences and conventions, where many activities are political in nature. Those conferences have allegedly involved discussions on gun control laws and election protests.
“It’s encouraging that the Supreme Court accepted this landmark case addressing the First Amendment rights of all public workers,” Trey Kovacs, labor policy expert at CEI, said in a statement provided to InsideSources. “No hardworking man or woman should be compelled to fund a labor union that does not represent their values or interests. For far too long, workers nationwide have been forced to finance unions they didn’t vote to join and pay to support inherently political organizations. It is time to stop this state-backed union funding scheme.”
Illinois Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner first launched the current challenge by issuing an executive order in 2015 directing the state to stop taking union fees from state workers who were not union members. The governor also filed a lawsuit in federal court, asking it to affirm his decision was legal.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, a Democrat, and some state unions moved in to counter the lawsuit. They argued the governor didn’t have standing to bring the lawsuit because he didn’t have to pay union dues or fees. A person with legal standing has a right to bring a lawsuit because they were harmed by a law or action.
NRTW and LJC decided to intervene when they saw the case was in trouble. They joined the case by offering legal assistance to the three state workers. A federal judge ruled a short time later that the governor did not have standing to proceed with the case, but the three state workers did.
Labor unions have a lot to lose if the lawsuit ends mandatory union dues in the public sector. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the union membership rate stands at 34.4 percent for public-sector workers, but only 6.4 percent for private. At the same time, federal workers aren’t required to fund unions but often do anyway.
Congressional Republicans have also introduced a bill aimed at making union dues and fees optional for all workers. Republicans hold a congressional majority, making its passage a possibility. President Donald Trump has already expressed his support for right-to-work laws and is likely to sign such a bill.
Janus v. AFSCME could become one of the most impactful lawsuits when it comes to national labor law if the justices decide to reverse course on current case precedents.