WASHINGTON — Public sector unions lost big Wednesday when the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it’s a violation of the First Amendment to force nonmember workers to pay membership dues.

The ruling could be particularly damaging to the Democratic Party, which has long benefited from strong union backing, both politically and financially.

The 5 to 4 decision split along partisan lines, once again highlighting a sharp ideological divide on the nation’s highest court.

Supreme Court Building Washington DC angle. 6 june 2016.
The U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision that conservatives have spent years fighting for. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Associate Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, said that it was a violation of nonmembers’ free speech rights to force them to “subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern.”

“It is hard to estimate how many billions of dollars have been taken from nonmembers and transferred to public-sector unions in violation of the First Amendment,” Alito wrote. “Those unconstitutional exactions cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely.”

The majority also ruled that states and public-sector unions can no longer “extract” fees from nonconsenting employees. Instead, employees must opt in.

In a dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Elena Kagan, one of the court’s liberal justices, said the majority decision is counter to a 1977 ruling that said public employees could be forced to pay their “fair share” of union costs as it related to collective bargaining so long as the money wasn’t used for political or ideological purposes.

Kagan, who was joined in her dissent by justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, said Wednesday’s decision will have “large-scale consequences.”

“Public employee unions will lose a secure source of financial support,” she said. “States and local governments that thought fair-share provisions furthered their interests will need to find new ways of managing their workforces.

“Across the country, the relationships of public employees and employers will alter in both predictable and wholly unexpected ways.”

The case began with a legal challenge from Mark Janus, a child support specialist in Illinois.

Janus was not a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, but he still had to pay the monthly membership dues to the union to cover the costs of collective bargaining, something that he benefited from.

The high court had previously ruled that it was OK for unions to collect these fees from nonmembers because it helped cover the costs of managing a collective bargaining agreement, whether it was negotiating better pay and benefits or handling employee grievances.

But the central theme of the Janus case focused on the First Amendment and whether a union’s political activities, supported by membership dues, can be considered forced speech.

The case is a big deal for Hawaii, where unions have a long history and play an integral role in local politics.

Nearly one in five workers in the state was the member of a labor union in 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That was twice the national average, and second only to New York, where about 24 percent of employees were part of a union.

If many of them decide to stop paying their dues, the ramifications could be far-reaching, especially in a blue state like Hawaii, but also throughout the country for the Democratic Party.

“The Janus case is part of a long-term effort by some very conservative forces that would like to destroy both public sector and private sector unions,” said U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono.

In 2016, the court deadlocked 4 to 4 in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a case that grappled with a similar question of whether unions can collect dues from public workers who don’t want to join. The split was again along partisan lines.

For decades, conservatives have worked to dismantle labor unions, and those efforts have often been backed by organizations with ties to millionaire and billionaire business owners.

With Trump’s appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the court, Hirono said she expects the trend of conservative-leaning decisions to continue.

“Court packing is very dangerous,” she said. “That will probably be Trump’s most lasting legacy. He’s appointing all of these very young judicial nominees with ideological axes to grind.”

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz was also concerned by the Janus ruling, and by the high court’s continued rightward journey.

“It just goes to show that this partisan Supreme Court is systematically making decisions that make them seem more like Republican elected officials than justices of the Supreme Court,” Schatz said.

The senator said it’s incumbent upon elected officials in Hawaii and across the country to stand up for workers rights and ensure that they’re treated fairly and compensated with equitable wages and benefits, something that he said bolsters the middle class.

“Hawaii is a labor state and I continue to believe that unions and unionization is one of the best economic strategies in terms of building and maintaining a middle class,” Schatz said.

“And whether it’s HGEA, HSTA or UPW this is going to hurt. I’m confident, however, that they are resilient organizations that still provide a lot of value to their members.”

The Hawaii Government Employees Associations, Hawaii State Teachers Association and United Public Workers unions are some of the largest and most influential public employee labor groups in the state.

The HGEA has more than 42,000 members, and is the state’s largest while the HSTA represents about 13,000 employees.

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