High court strikes down mandatory union fees
High court strikes down mandatory union fees
Melissa Nann Burke, The Detroit News Published 10:32 a.m. ET June 27, 2018 | Updated 12:09 p.m. ET June 27, 2018
Illinois state employee Mark Janus argued that forcing him to subsidize union positions he disagrees with violates his First Amendment rights.(Photo: Liberty Justice Center)
Washington — The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday said the mandatory fees that some government employees must pay to their unions for negotiating their contracts are an unconstitutional violation of free speech.
The 5-4 ruling, written by Justice Samuel Alito, said such fees violate the First Amendment rights of non-union members “by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern.”
The decision threatens a potentially significant blow to the power and size of public-employee unions, which rely on the revenue from such fees.
It is expected to turn public-sector unions into essentially voluntary organizations in states without right-to-work provisions, as some workers choose to quit paying.
The majority opinion held that employees must affirmatively consent before fees can be withheld from their pay. That is, employees must opt-in, rather than opt out of paying.
The decision overrulesa 40-year-old precedent in a case out of Michigan known as Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which unanimously upheld mandatory public-sector union fees, also called agency fees, in 1977.
Alito wrote that Abood was “poorly reasoned” and led to “practical problems and abuse.”
“It is inconsistent with other First Amendment cases and has been undermined by more recent decisions,” he wrote.
In a dissent, Justice Elena Kagan said the decision will have “large-scale consequences.”
“Public employee unions will lose a secure source of financial support,” Kagan wrote.
“State and local governments that thought fair-share provisions furthered their interests will need to find new ways of managing their workforces.”
Stephen Roberts, with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), holds up a sign against Mark Janus during a rally outside of the Supreme Court, Monday, Feb. 26, 2018, in Washington. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin / AP)
In accordance with Abood, Illinois state law authorized unions to collect fees from non-members for its work related to collective bargaining and contract administration but not for the union’s political activities.
Illinois state employee Mark Janus had asked the justices to overturn Abood, arguing that forcing him to subsidize positions he disagrees with violates his First Amendment rights.
His attorneys asserted that unions’ bargaining with the government is political speech no different than lobbying the government.
They also contended Abood is “unworkable,” in part because of difficulties in distinguishing between activities related to politics — for which fees may not be charged — and activities related to collective bargaining, which may be charged.
Michigan and several other states sided with Janus, highlighting municipal bankruptcies like Detroit’s in which public-employee benefits played a role. They argued that collective bargaining affects taxpayers’ pocketbooks.
Employees usually don’t have to pay agency fees in Michigan or the 26 other states with right-to-work laws, though the ruling could affect police and fire employees who are exempt from Michigan’s statute.
Michigan Speaker of the House Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, praised the high court’s decision, saying “no one should be forced to join a political group against their will.”
“Michigan is a Right to Work state because every working man and woman deserves a chance to find any career they want without being forced to support a union,” Leonard said.
“Now people all across the country will have the same opportunity to make their own decisions and chart the course of their own future, no matter what political activities they support.”
State Rep. Gary Glenn, R-Williams Township, also applauded the decision. He previously pushed to eliminate the Michigan exemption for firefighters and police officers from the state’s right-to-work law.
“Leaving their free speech and conscience rights unprotected under Michigan’s right to work law was an unconscionable omission that has now been corrected by the U.S. Supreme Court, and rightly so,” Glenn said.
Janus’ union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), said agency fees ensure that all workers who benefit from a collective-bargaining agreement pay their fair share of the cost of negotiating and administering it.
Labor advocates have worried that a victory for Janus would sap union treasuries and lead to free-riding, in which employees opt out but still benefit from the union’s bargaining for better wages, health care and workplace protections.
AFSCME Council 25, based in Lansing, denounced Wednesday’s ruling, but President Lawrence A. Roehrig said that “no court case can stop our movement.”
“Corporate interests and the right-wing media will use this case to predict the death of unions the same way they did after they passed Right to Work (for less) here in Michigan. Yet Michigan unions continue to add tens of thousands of new members every year,” Roehrig said.
“AFSCME members and all working people across Michigan will stick together and organize against any attempt to divide and weaken us. We’ll remember this when we go to the polls in November.”
Ahead of the court’s decision, the AFL-CIO launched a major ad campaign featuring a letter by President Richard Trumka that ran in several national and regional newspapers in states including Michigan and online.
“From the boardroom to the steps of the Supreme Court, a dark web of corporate interests is trying to stop us with everything it has,” Trumka wrote. “But no matter what any CEO or lobbyist does, we’re standing up for the freedom to join together in a union.”
The 1977 Janus ruling said the government had an interest in promoting “labor peace” and preventing free-riders.
The Abood court had said agency fees could be used only for “collective bargaining, contract administration and grievance adjustment,” and not political or ideological activities.