WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court dealt a major blow to public sector unions on Wednesday in a case that could shake their financial structure and undermine their future stability.
The justices struck down an Illinois law that required non-union workers to pay fees that go to collective bargaining.
The ruling was 5-4 along partisan lines, with conservative Justice Samuel Alito writing for the majority.
“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. Those unconstitutional exactions cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely,” Alito wrote.
In a blistering dissent, Justice Elena Kagan wrote, “The First Amendment was meant for better things. It was meant not to undermine but to protect democratic governance—including over the role of public-sector unions.”
Reading from the bench, she added: “There’s no sugarcoating today’s opinion.”
At stake in the case
At the center of the debate is a 1977 Supreme Court opinion known as Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that says while non-members of public sector unions cannot be required to pay fees for a union’s political activities, they can be required to pay so-called “fair share” fees pertaining to issues such as employee grievances, physical safety and training.
In recent years, so-called Right to Work groups as well as some conservatives on the court have pushed for it to be overturned. Wednesday, nearly half of all states have laws on the books that allow broad fair share fees for public employees.
The case was brought by Mark Janus, an Illinois public sector employee, who challenged the fees. He said that because he is a government employee, issues germane to collective bargaining are inherently political. He argued that the First Amendment protected him from having to support such political expression.
Janus has been represented in the challenge by groups such as the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and the Liberty Justice Center.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents public sector employees, has described the challenge as a threat to American workers.
The public sector unions argue that they are required by law to represent all employees regardless of if they are members and that no one is required to join the union.
If non-members don’t have any obligation to pay fair share fees for the collective bargaining obligations, they would become free riders, benefiting from the representation without sharing the costs, the unions say. The coffers of public sector unions would also suffer if non-members were able to get services for free.
Alito noted, and dismissed, the impact to union funds.
“We recognize that the loss of payments from non-members may cause unions to experience unpleasant transition costs in the short term, and may require unions to make adjustments in order to attract and retain members,” Alito wrote. “But we must weigh these disadvantages against the considerable windfall that unions have received under Abood for the past 41 years.”
The Trump administration sided with Janus in the case, reversing course from the Obama administration in a 2016 case when the Supreme Court heard arguments in a similar challenge, but deadlocked in a 4-4 split following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
This story is breaking and will be updated