In a blow to organized labor, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that government workers who choose not to join a union cannot be charged for the cost of collective bargaining.
"This case is yet another example of corporate interests using their power and influence to launch a political attack on working people and rig the rules of the economy in their own favor," Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said in a statement when the case reached the high court.
The plaintiff in this case, Mark Janus, a child-support specialist for the state of Illinois, challenged a requirement that government workers who opt out of a union still have to pay partial dues to cover the union's cost of negotiation and other functions.
In 1977, the Supreme Court had drawn a distinction between such mandatory "agency fees" and other, voluntary union dues, which might be used for lobbying or other political activity.
Wednesday's decision erases that distinction. The court's conservative wing found that negotiations by public sector unions are inherently political and nonmembers cannot be compelled to pay for them.
"In addition to affecting how public money is spent, union speech in collective bargaining addresses many other important matters," Alito wrote. "We have often recognized that such speech 'occupies the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values' and merits 'special protection.' "
Alito dismissed the argument that allowing nonmembers to opt out of negotiating fees would allow them to unfairly piggyback on their dues-paying co-workers.
Janus "strenuously objects to this free-rider label," Alito wrote. "He argues that he is not a free rider on a bus headed for a destination that he wishes to reach but is more like a person shanghaied for an unwanted voyage."
The high court heard a similar case in 2016, but deadlocked 4-4 after Scalia's death, giving public sector unions a two-year reprieve.
While the Obama administration sided with the union in that earlier case, the Trump administration backed Janus and his fellow union holdouts.
Wednesday's ruling is a victory for conservative activists who have been waging a multipronged battle against organized labor - and a potentially crippling blow for public sector unions.
"Public employee unions will lose a secure source of financial support," Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a dissenting opinion. "Across the country, the relationships of public employees and employers will alter in both predictable and wholly unexpected ways. Rarely if ever has the Court overruled a decision - let alone one of this import - with so little regard for the usual principles of stare decisis," that is, allowing past rulings to stand.
Source: NPR, "https://www.npr.org/2018/06/27/606208436/supreme-court-deals-blow-to-government-unions," June 27, 2018.