Public-sector unions are bracing for a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that has the potential to hurt them financially. In Washington state, the case would affect almost 300,000 workers employed in the public sector, including teachers and other school staff represented by unions.
The case, Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, centers on whether public-sector unions can collect fees from workers to cover the cost of collective bargaining even if workers decide not to be full union members. The idea of this kind of fee, often called an “agency fee” or a “fair-share fee,” is to cover the cost of representation services offered by the union without contributing toward the union’s political activities.
The plaintiff is Mark Janus, a state employee in Illinois who argued that having to pay a fee to the union infringed on his First Amendment rights. He said collective bargaining between a public-sector union and a government agency is inherently political and he shouldn’t have to contribute toward it.
The conventional wisdom is that the conservative majority of the Supreme Court will rule against the unions. That would likely mean that some public-sector workers will decide not to pay anything to the unions that represent them, said Charlotte Garden, an associate professor at the Seattle University School of Law.
“If you say to workers, you can have the same representation from your union but you don’t have to pay for it, there will be a certain economic incentive not to pay anymore, even if you like the service that you get from your union,” Garden said.
In Washington, the legislature took action in the most recent session to help public-sector unions in anticipation of a court ruling against them. For example, state lawmakers passed a bill requiring that employers provide time for unions to meet with new employees during orientation. Joe Kendo is government affairs director of the Washington State Labor Council, which advocated for the bill.
“What that basically does is just guarantees that unions and work organization can go talk to workers within 90 days of being hired so we can talk about their rights as union members and their rights under the contracts and how labor organizations are organized and how to access your leadership and who your shop stewards are and those kinds of things,” Kendo said.
Max Nelsen is with the Freedom Foundation, a group that’s been fighting to limit the power of public-sector unions. He said these meetings between union representatives and new employees are nothing more than a sales pitch.
“It is purely about getting folks to sign on the dotted line, authorizing the state to withhold union dues from their pay,” Nelsen said.
Nelsen said he anticipates even more litigation after the Janus ruling. He said in the event that the Supreme Court rules against public-sector unions, groups such as the Freedom Foundation will contact workers and use the courts to make sure employees know they don’t have to pay union dues.