The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a lawsuit challenging mandatory union dues in the public-sector in a case that could hit a key source of financial support for Democrats.
Unions must allow nonmembers to withhold political contributions beyond the fees required to represent them, but the process to stop paying these fees can often be difficult. In the upcoming Supreme Court case, lead plaintiff Mark Janus and two other Illinois state workers argue in their lawsuit that mandatory union dues violate their constitutional rights.
The Supreme Court decided to accept the case Sept. 27 following a split decision for an identical case last year. The lawsuit argues that mandatory union dues in the public-sector are a violation of the First Amendment. No one can be required to fund political speech, with the lawsuit claiming public-sector union activities are political by nature.
“It would be a big blow to the union coffers,” James Plunkett, senior counsel for the employer-focused law firm Ogletree Deakins, told InsideSources. “Where does a lot of the union’s money go to? It goes, for the most part, to the Democratic Party. So there are these larger political implications as well. Between the First Amendment, union finances, and political funding, there’s a lot at play here.”
The Center for Union Facts (CUF) found in a report Sept. 19 that labor unions have contributed nearly $765 million to the Democratic Party and liberal special interest groups between 2012 and 2016. The report adds that the political contributions total 99 percent of their total advocacy budget.
“A pro-employee ruling would drain public-sector unions of a significant chunk of political advocacy funds,” CUF communications director Luka Ladan told InsideSources. “History has shown that, when given a choice, many union members refuse to support union officials’ left-wing political crusade with their money.”
The CUF has been a long-time advocate for worker choice policies like right-to-work laws. It has also argued in support for a pending bill known as the Employee Rights Act. The bill primarily changes union elections and how dues payments can be taken. The CUF ran a two-page advertisement in support of the bill October 2.
Mark Janus and the other state workers are basing their claim on a First Amendment challenge. The U.S. Constitution bans compelled speech, which includes being forced to fund political activities. Abood v. Detroit Board of Education allows unions to require dues so long as nonmembers have the option of not paying for political activity.
Labor unions engage in collective bargaining to negotiate the wages, benefits, and working conditions for the workers they represent. The lawsuit argues that public-sector collective bargaining is political because it deals with the allocation of taxpayer dollars and government resources.
Labor unions and their supporters claim that optional dues encourage workers to free-ride. Workers might decide not to fund their union knowing that they will get the benefits anyways. Critics counter that it’s really about giving workers a choice instead of forcing them to fund an organization they do not support.
Labor unions and their supporters denounced the lawsuit as an underhanded attack to undermine unions by taking away dues-paying members. But it is still unclear how public-sector workers will respond if they gain the right to choose whether to fund their union. The impact could be potentially huge with unionization rates the highest in the public-sector.
“No one likes to say this, but money is a big thing here,” Plunkett said. “And that’s why it’s so important to the unions because its a big source of revenue and it gets, for the most part, funneled to the Democratic Party. For Mr. Janus, it’s not necessarily about money; it’s more about having to fund an organization which he abhors.”
The Supreme Court ruling in favor of the state workers would directly impact where their membership rates are strongest. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that the public-sector has the highest rate of unionized workers at 34.4 percent. In the private-sector only 6.4 percent of workers are unionized.
Wisconsin saw a significant decline in membership rates when they made dues optional for state workers. Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker reformed labor policy in his state as part of Act 10. The labor reforms allowed state employees to choose whether they wanted to pay union dues when it was passed in 2011. The union membership rate in the state dropped from 14.1 percent to just 9.0 percent by 2016.
But the impact might not be anywhere near that bad. Federal employees already have the right not to pay union dues or fees. But union membership is still fairly high in the federal workforce. Labor unions also exist in every single right-to-work state, where mandatory dues or fees as a condition of employment are banned.
Labor unions have already been facing a decades-long decline in membership rates. Former President Barack Obama argued numerous times during his time in office that unions were critical to protecting workers. His administration implemented numerous regulations to help bolster their membership. President Donald Trump and congressional leaders have begun to roll back some of those reforms.