U.S. Supreme Court Deals Devastating Blow to Labor Unions Nationwide

construction worker holding hard hat

In Janus v. AFSCME, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in its 5-4 decision, that employees who choose not to join labor associations — but who work in union shops and benefit from union-negotiated contracts without paying union dues — do not have to pay agency fees similar to ones paid by full-fledged members that go to collective bargaining.

The case was filed by Mark Janus, an employee at the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services. Janus does not belong to the union that represents him — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — but he remains required to pay the union the “fair share” fees to cover the costs of collective bargaining from which he benefits. That is, until the Supreme Court ruled that he no longer had to.

In its decision, the Court stated that these so-called “fair share” fees violate “the free speech rights of nonmembers by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern.” The Court dismissed the union’s argument that agency fees prevented free-riding from employees who benefit from the union’s negotiations. AFSCME argued that, because it was obligated by law to represent the interests of both union and nonunion members, the fees were a way for employees to pay their fair share for contact negotiations from which they benefited.

The decision in Janus overrules a previous decision by the Supreme Court called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, decided back in 1977. Detroit teacher D. Louis Abood objected to being forced to become a member or pay agency fees (which are generally lower but pay for bargaining services) to a teachers’ union. To force him to give money to a group whose political ideas he disagreed with was, he claimed, compelled speech. In a unanimous ruling, the Court in Abood, rejected that argument, instead ruling that while agency fees could not be used to pay for lobbying or political activity, unions could still force nonmembers to pay them in exchange for collective bargaining and other apolitical services the union provides.

The Janus ruling is likely to devastate funding for public sector unions, including those representing teachers, police officers, and municipal workers. While workers can choose whether or not to join a union, unions are legally obligated to bargain for everyone in a particular work group. This means that even though workers no longer have to pay for union representation, this does not remove a union’s obligation to represent its workers. For the worker, this means they can leave the union and save on fees yet still get the pay and benefits the union negotiates with the employer.

Rolando C. Delacruz, Esq.
June 27, 2018