Supreme Court deals setback to labor unions

Supreme Court deals setback to labor unions PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
Supreme Court deals setback to labor unions PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

In a setback for public employee unions, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday public unions cannot force non-union members covered by the contract to pay fees used to finance the costs of collective bargaining with state and local governments.

The decision will impact public-sector unions around Ohio and the nation.

In a 5-4 opinion, the justices struck down a high court ruling from four decades ago that allowed unions to collect fees from non-union members covered by the contract, as long as those dues did not finance political activities.

Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito concluded “under Illinois law, public employees are forced to subsidize a union, even if they choose not to join and strongly object to the positions the union takes in collective bargaining and related activities.”

Alito wrote “this arrangement violates the free speech rights of non-members by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern.”

The decision overturns a famous 1977 decision known as Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which Alito castigated as “poorly reasoned. It has led to practical problems and abuse.”

ExploreRELATED: President hails ruling on union fees

The decision is a major blow against public employee unions, with even Alito acknowledging “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.”

“But we must weigh these disadvantages against the considerable windfall that unions have received under Abood for the past 41 years,” Alito wrote.

In a dissent, Justice Elena Kagan wrote “the various tasks involved in representing employees cost money; if the union doesn’t have enough, it can’t be an effective employee representative and bargaining partner.”

She wrote “agency fees are often needed to ensure such stable funding. That is because without those fees, employees have every incentive to free ride on the union dues paid by others.”

Ohio Democrats reacted with anger to the ruling. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said the “decision by this anti-worker Supreme Court is an attack on workers’ freedom to advocate for themselves.”

By contrast, Senate Republican candidate Jim Renacci, who is running against Brown, said the ruling “is a victory for the First Amendment and I applaud” the justices “for standing up for all of the hardworking public sector employees.

Joining Alito to form the majority were Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Neil Gorsuch. Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Kagan dissented.

The decision showed that the court’s conservative bloc is willing to set aside the doctrine of stare decisis which means the justices try not to invalidate earlier opinions.

Alito wrote “we will not overturn a past decision unless there are strong grounds for doing so,” but pointedly added “we have often recognized stare decisis” is not required for all cases.

“Stare decisis applies with perhaps least force of all to decisions that wrongly denied First Amendment rights,” Alito wrote.

In her dissent, Kagan wrote the conservative bloc “succeeds in its six-year campaign to reverse Abood.” The decision, she wrote, will “have large-scale consequences. Public employee unions will lose a secure source of financial support.”

“Rarely if ever has the court overruled a decision —— let alone one of this import—with so little regard for the usual principles of stare decisis,” Kagan wrote. “There are no special justifications for reversing Abood. It has proved workable.”

The lawsuit was filed by Mark Janus, who works for the state of Illinois but does not belong to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. AFSCME represents 35,000 public employees in Illinois.

Janus complained the union requires him to pay a monthly fee, which often is called a “fair-share” fee. The fair-share fee tends to be less money than full union dues for members.

His attorneys argued the fees were used to “subsidize AFSCME’s efforts to compel the state of Illinois to bend to the union’s will.”

Conservative critics of Abood complained for years that it allowed public employee unions to negotiate contracts with state officials – many of whom the union supported politically – that saddled taxpayers with billions of dollars in potential taxes, particularly for pensions.

Alito wrote the “ascendance of public-sector unions has been marked by a parallel increase in public spending. We are told, for example, that Illinois’ pension funds are underfunded by $129 billion as a result of generous public-employee retirement packages.”