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U.S. Supreme Court To Hear Case With Big Significance For Public-Sector Unions

J. Scott Applewhite
AP Photo
The U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments Monday in a case that has big potential consequences for public-sector unions in Washington state. If the conservative majority on the court rules against the unions, they could be hurt financially, according to one legal expert.

A state employee in Illinois named Mark Janus filed the lawsuit against the union that represented him, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 31.

He’s challenging the union’s practice of requiring him to pay a fee to cover the cost of collective bargaining, even though he chose not to become a full member because he disagrees with the union’s political activity. Janus argues that any money that goes to public-sector unions winds up being political.

Charlotte Garden is an associate professor at the Seattle University School of Law. She’s attending the oral arguments at the Supreme Court in person because she said it’s such a significant case for labor law.

“His argument is that when he has to pay a fee to the union that represents him, that’s forced subsidization of essentially political speech and he argues that that’s a violation of the First Amendment,” Garden said.

If the Supreme Court sides with Janus, public-sector unions could be hurt financially if some people decide to stop paying fees to the labor groups that represent them.

“If Janus is successful, then it will become entirely voluntary to pay any money to the [public-sector] union that represents you for any purpose,” Garden said.

Garden said that could reduce the unions’ ability to contribute to political campaigns and that would likely hurt Democrats. She also said unions may become more aggressive in bargaining and pursuing grievances as a way to prove their value to the people they represent.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine have filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the union. The Freedom Foundation, an organization in Olympia that’s been fighting public-sector unions, has filed a brief in support of Mark Janus.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.