Public employees who object to paying fees to a union that represents them have a free speech right to opt out of those payments, a divided U.S. Supreme Court said Wednesday.
Overturning a 41-year-old decision on collective bargaining law, the conservative majority of the court said an Illinois state worker who refused to join the public employees union and opposed many of the positions that it took in collective bargaining cannot be required to pay a fee that covers union services.
The ruling, which conservative foes of organized labor and many union officials anticipated, was denounced by Democrats and praised by Republicans in Washington. In Spokane, several leaders of public employee unions said they disagree with the decision but question whether it will have much immediate effect on their organization.
“It’s disappointing, but it’s not a surprise,” said Toby Doolittle, president of the Mead Education Association. Public employee union locals will need to make strong connections with employees to demonstrate what they get for their money, he said.
The decision does not cover union dues for full members, but so-called agency fees, which employees who opt out of union membership pay for certain services like collective bargaining and representation in grievance proceedings.
Those fees are a form of speech, Justice Samuel Alito said in the majority opinion.
Mark Janus, a child support specialist for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, refused to join the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees because he opposed many of its policies, and disagreed with its stance in contract negotiations because the state was in the middle of a fiscal crisis. He wanted out of the $44.58 monthly fee the law required him to pay as an agency fee to the union.
A 1977 Supreme Court ruling allowed states to require agency fees as a way of avoiding conflict and disruption in the workplace. Alito and four other justices said it was time to overturn that ruling.
“The First Amendment does not permit the government to compel a person to pay for another party’s speech just because the government thinks that speech furthers the interests of the person who does not want to pay,” Alito wrote.
Employees cannot automatically be required to pay a fee, they must “clearly and affirmatively assent” before any money can be deducted from their paychecks, he said.
Justice Elaine Kagan said the 1977 decision struck a balance between an employee’s free speech rights and the state’s interest in a well-run workplace, with agency fees that covered the cost of union services but without the portion of union dues that go to political activity. The Janus decision, she said, was part of a six-year campaign to reverse that decision and will have “large-scale consequences.”
State and national union leaders shared Kagan’s view.
“This ruling isn’t just an attack on union workers, it’s an attack on the freedom of all working people to come together to improve their lives, their workplaces and their communities,” said Greg Devereux, executive director for the AFSCME council that represents state employees.
But leaders of some local units were more optimistic, at least in the near future.
“I feel like we do a good job of providing a service to our members,” said Randy Marler, president of Spokane Firefighters Union Local 29. While he personally disagrees with the decision, he said it probably won’t have much effect on his organization.
The union has no firefighters who are “fair share” or agency fee members who have opted out of a portion of their dues, Marler said, and under the ruling “everybody that’s already in is still in.”
The ruling is a signal to leaders of public employees unions that their organizations should be providing their members service, he said.
Katy Henry, president of the Spokane Education Association, said the union that represents teachers and classified staff in the Spokane Public Schools has very few agency fee members. They’ll stop paying the portion of dues that went to services like collective bargaining because of the decision, but the vast majority of the members will remain in the union, she said.
The SEA will be engaged in wage discussions this summer with the school district, and will negotiate a full contract next summer. Those activities keep members “clued in to what we do,” Henry said. In the long run, it’s hard to predict what the impact of the decision will be, she added.
Doolittle, the head of the union that represents teachers and staff in the Mead School District, said of some 650 employees covered by the union, three refuse to join the union because of religious objections, and another five are agency-fee employees.
“We anticipate that will increase as some members make an economic decision about paying for something they can get for free,” Doolittle said. But the contract negotiations this summer “provide us the opportunity to demonstrate the value of the organization, he said
Gov. Jay Inslee and state Attorney General Bob Ferguson issued a joint statement describing the decision as an effort by the conservative majority of the court to “take us backwards to a time when workers had to resort to enormously disruptive strikes and walkouts in order to make their voices heard.”
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., called it “a loss for working people and yet another win for corporate interests.” Her seatmate, Sen. Maria Cantwell, said the ruling undermines the abilities of public employees to collectively bargain and will co-sponsor federal legislation to make sure they can form and join unions.
State Sen. Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said the case was not about unions that look out for the interests of workers, like those in the private sector. Instead it was about those that cater to government workers, and allowing those workers “to decide how many of the taxpayer dollars they receive as wages end up being funneled into the unions’ bank accounts.”
State Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, said the court’s ruling that a public employee union can no longer presume membership could mean a bill passed last year is void.
That law, which passed narrowly with support mainly from Democrats and opposition mainly from Republicans, requires union dues to be automatically deducted for public employee covered by a bargaining union unless that employee fills out paperwork authorizing the smaller, agency fee.
Under the Janus ruling, an employee cannot be required to opt out, they must agree to join the union or pay the agency fee. Those who do not are not required to pay any fees that cover services the union provides.