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Supreme Court Strikes Major Blow to Unions

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Dive Brief:

  • Public-sector “agency shop” arrangements — which mandate union fees from nonconsenting public-sector employees — violate the First Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 27 in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 31, No. 16-1466.
  • Despite the 5-4 ruling’s focus on union fees in the public sector, it may end up being “the most important labor law decision … possibly ever [and] at least in decades,” Phillip Wilson, president and general counsel of the Labor Relations Institute, told attendees at a recent conference. He predicted that this outcome will represent a major blow to unions generally.
  • The case stemmed from a complaint filed by an Illinois child support specialist who challenged the $45 monthly fee he had to pay to the union that represents him, despite not being a member. “The First Amendment is violated when money is taken from nonconsenting employees for a public-sector union; employees must choose to support the union before anything is taken from them,” the majority wrote, reversing a 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals opinion. “Accordingly, neither an agency fee nor any other form of payment to a public-sector union may be deducted from an employee, nor may any other attempt be made to collect such a payment, unless the employee affirmatively consents to pay.”

Dive Insight:

The decision will not only change how public-sector unions work, but also may have some implications for private-sector labor issues. It could, for example, generally weaken unions, some say. It will mean less funding for unions, potentially giving anti-union measures, like right-to-work laws, a boost.

Others have warned that it will facilitate a “free-rider” problem denounced in earlier Supreme Court decisions. The ruling will compromise workers’ collective strength at time when the interests of working people most need to be bolstered, Angela Cornell, a Cornell University law professor and labor law clinic director for the school, said in a statement.

Others have pointed out that the decision will force unions to provide a better value proposition to attract members, rather than relying on forced fees. Janus could actually end up strengthening unions in this respect, they say. Wilson, however, disagrees and, in predicting the 5-4 ruling, said unions are in “deep trouble.”

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