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Supreme Court deals sharp defeat to public employee unions, banning mandatory fees

By David G. Savage • Jun 27, 2018 at 3:47 PM

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court dealt labor unions a sharp defeat Wednesday, ruling that teachers, police officers and other public employees cannot be forced to pay dues or fees to support their unions.

By a 5 to 4 vote, the justices overturned a 41-year-old precedent and ruled that the 1st Amendment protects these employees from being required to support a private group whose views may differ from theirs.

"Today the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of free speech for America's government employees," said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel. "Employees should never be forced to support ideologies and groups that are against their sincerely held beliefs. Americans have a great reason to celebrate another Supreme Court decision in favor of free speech this week.”

The decision, in Janus vs. AFSCME, strikes down laws in California, New York and 20 other mostly Democratic-leaning states that authorize unions to negotiate contracts that require all employees to pay a so-called fair share fee to cover the cost of collective bargaining.

"The Supreme Court today in Janus v. AFSCME announced its basic rule of human decency and common sense: consent matters-and our hardworking public-sector workers can no longer be forced to pay for political speech or other activities without their affirmative consent,” said Robert Alt, president and chief executive officer of The Buckeye Institute — an independent research and educational institution.

Not all welcomed the Supreme Court's decision, however.

“Today’s decision by this anti-worker Supreme Court is an attack on workers’ freedom to advocate for themselves,” U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said. “Workers produce more than ever, but don’t share in the wealth they create. Our economy doesn’t value work. We change that by giving workers a voice in the businesses they help build – not silencing them. The decision is shameful, and it’s a setback — but we’re not going to stop organizing and fighting back for workers who build the middle class.”

In 1977, when public sector unions were getting established, the high court said teachers and other public employees may not be forced to pay full union dues if some of the money went for political contributions. But the justices upheld the lesser fair share fees on the theory that all of the employees benefited from a union contract and its grievance procedures.

But today’s more conservative court disagreed and said employees have a right not to give any support to a union. These payments were described as a form of “compelled speech” which violates the 1st Amendment.

The anti-union National Right to Work Foundation, which funded the challenge, predicted the ruling would free more than 5 million public employees from supporting their unions.

For the unions, which traditionally support Democrats, the ruling will mean an immediate loss of some funding and a gradual erosion in their membership. Union officials fear that an unknown number of employees will quit paying dues if doing so is entirely optional.

“This decision comes just as millions of workers across the country are recommitting to unions with new organizing drives and growing ranks in important sectors of our economy right here in Ohio,” Ohio AFL-CIO President Tim Burga said. “Public support for labor unions has risen to its highest level in years. The billionaires and corporate special interests that have manipulated our system of justice have succeeded in getting the highest court in the land to do their bidding. The labor movement, however, remains undeterred.

“We have faced similar attacks in Ohio and ultimately prevailed,” Burga continued. “Powered by our membership and carried by the expressed support of a vast majority of Ohioans, labor unions will continue to fight to sustain our families, improve our workplaces and make our communities stronger regardless of the court’s ruling.”

The ruling is likely to have a political impact in many states where these unions have been strong supporters of the Democratic Party.

The ruling split the court along ideological and partisan lines. The five justices who formed the majority were all Republican appointees. The four dissenters were appointed by Democratic presidents.

The outcome comes as no surprise to the unions or their lawyers. Three years ago, the justices had before them an identical free-speech challenge to union fees brought by Rebecca Friedrichs, a California teacher. The five conservative justices appeared set to strike down the union fees, but Justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly in February 2016. A month later, the court announced it was divided 4-4 and could not issue a ruling.

President Donald Trump’s victory allowed him to replace Scalia with Justice Neil M. Gorsuch who, as expected, cast the fifth vote for the conservatives.

The current case was launched by Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner shortly after he took office. He sued to stop the forced collection of union fees, but a federal judge in Chicago said he had no standing to sue since he did not have to pay the fees. So Mark Janus, a state employee from Springfield, stepped forward as a plaintiff. He said he did want to pay $45 a month to support the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

As expected, he lost in the 7th Circuit Court in Chicago because such union fees were legal under the court’s previous precedent, now overturned.

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©2018 Los Angeles Times

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