On Wednesday, the Supreme Court struck down an Illinois law that required non-union workers to pay fees that go towards collective bargaining. The decision has massive implications on the financial structure of public sector unions and could be devastating to their future outlook.
Conservative Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority in the 5-4 decision.
“It is hard to estimate how many billions of dollars have been taken from non-members and transferred to public-sector unions in violation of the First Amendment,” Alito wrote. “Those unconstitutional executions cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely.”
“The First Amendment was meant for better things,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote, in dissent of the decision. “It was not meant to undermine but to protect democratic governance -- including over the role of public-sector unions.”
Ramifications for unions
Those in favor of the decision believe that non-union members shouldn’t be responsible for paying a share of union dues that cover the cost of negotiating contracts. However, union members have previously reported that this exact outcome would cut off an income source, as well as diminish their political influence in the 23 states where they advocate for both members and non-members.
Nearly half of all union members in the United States are government employees, and a recent non-partisan study found that a Supreme Court defeat would eventually cause public employee unions to lose 726,000 members -- which would be a significant blow.
While Alito noted that unions could “experience unpleasant transition costs in the short term,” he believes labor’s problems aren’t as serious as “the considerable windfall that unions have received...for the past 41 years.”
Despite being in the minority, Justice Kagan continued to reinforce the implications this decision will have moving forward.
“There’s no sugarcoating today’s decision,” Kagan wrote. “The majority overthrows a decision entrenched in this Nation’s law -- and its economic life -- for over 40 years. As a result, it prevents the American people, acting through their state and local officials, from making important choices about workplace governance. And it does so by weaponizing the First Amendment, in a way that unleashes judges, now and in the future, to intervene in economic and regulatory policy.”
History in the case
The debate surrounding the case stems from the decision in the 1977 Supreme Court case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. That ruling decided that non-members of public sector unions cannot be required to pay fees for a union’s political activities, but they can be required to pay “fair share” fees that go towards employee grievances, physical safety, and training.
The current case began with a lawsuit against an Illinois public sector union filed by Republican Governor Bruce Rauner.
Two years ago, the court was locked in a 4-4 standstill on this same issue when it was presented by a group of California teachers who were opposed to paying the fees. Since then, Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch joined the court and provided the fifth vote to end the fees.
“By requiring unions to represent everyone in a collective bargaining unit without ensuring fair contributions for that representation, unions will be forced to do more with much less -- to the detriment of those they represent,” said Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-California). “The decision today is the latest blow in a decades-long, nationwide effort by conservatives to bust unions that advocate for workers and protect them from employer abuses.”