Fees case may enable U.S. Supreme Court
to curb union power
Send a link to a friend
[February 24, 2018]
By Robert Iafolla and Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme
Court on Monday will consider for the second time in two years whether
to choke off a critical funding stream for public-employee unions,
potentially reducing organized labor's influence in the workplace and at
the ballot box.
The nine justices will hear a challenge backed by anti-union groups to
the legality of fees that workers who are not members of unions
representing teachers, police, firefighters and certain other government
employees must pay to help cover the costs of collective bargaining with
state and local governments.
Two dozen states require payment of these so-called agency fees,
covering roughly 5 million public-sector workers, that provide millions
of dollars annually to unions. Their disappearance would deliver another
blow to a U.S. organized labor movement already in a diminished state
compared to past decades.
The justices considered a similar case in 2016, and after hearing
arguments appeared poised to overturn a 1977 Supreme Court precedent
that let unions force non-members covered by contracts negotiated by
organized labor to pay fees in lieu of union dues to help cover
non-political union expenditures.
But the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia the following month
left the court with an even split of conservatives and liberals, and its
4-4 ruling in March 2016 did not resolve the legal question.
Republican President Donald Trump's appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch
last year restored the Supreme Court's 5-4 conservative majority.
Gorsuch could cast the deciding vote in dooming agency fees.
Depriving unions of agency fees could hamstring their ability to spend
in political races. They typically back Democratic candidates over
The 2016 case was brought by non-union California public school
teachers. The plaintiff in the current case is Mark Janus, a
child-support specialist for the state of Illinois who opted not to join
the union that represents employees like him, the American Federation of
State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
In both cases, the challengers argued that being forced to pay the
agency fees to unions whose views they may not share violates their
rights to free speech and free association under the U.S. Constitution's
Unions in both cases contended that mandatory agency fees are needed in
order to eliminate the problem of what they call "free riders" --
non-members who benefit from union representation, for example through
salary and working conditions obtained in collective bargaining --
without actually paying for it.
'I LOSE MY JOB'
Janus, 65, is backed in the legal fight by anti-union groups including
the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.
[to top of second column]
People line up to visit the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, DC,
U.S., March 29, 2016. REUTERS/Gary Cameron/File Photo
He said in an interview he is not a member of a political party and
his objection to the fees was not based on politics. Janus said he
has chafed at having to pay the fees, currently just under $50 a
month, since starting his current stint working for Illinois in
"I don't agree with the fact that someone is telling me I have to
support something without asking me about that. This is not freedom
of association. If I don't pay, I lose my job," Janus said.
AFSCME and other public-sector unions have called the case a
well-funded attack by corporations and billionaires to undermine
"This case is about power," American Federation of Teachers
President Randi Weingarten said.
"The funders of this case want a new Gilded Age, this time on
steroids," Weingarten added, referring to a period in the late 19th
century known for its concentration of wealth among industrialists.
Twenty-four states have agency fee requirements. While 28 states
have so-called right-to-work laws that prohibit mandatory agency
fees, Wisconsin and Michigan have exceptions for police officers and
firefighters that permit agency fees covering those workers. In
those right-to-work states, unions still represent workers but
membership rates are lower.
Federal employee unions cannot collect agency fees.
The union membership rate among public-sector workers was nearly 35
percent in 2017, more than five times higher than the unionization
rate for workers in the private sector, U.S. Bureau of Labor
Statistics figures show. The case does not affect private-sector
Taking away mandatory agency fees could have profound implications
for public-sector union coffers. Unions in New York state, for
example, would lose an estimated $110 million per year without
mandatory fees from non-members, according to the business-backed
Empire Center for Public Policy.
(Reporting by Robert Iafolla and Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will
[© 2018 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2018 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Thompson Reuters is solely responsible for this content.