Mandatory Public Sector Union Fees Ruled Unconstitutional; Violate First Amendment

Today, in a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court overturned 40 years of precedent by ruling that mandatory public sector union dues are unconstitutional.

The case, Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, U.S., No. 16-1466, overturns the 1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which held that government employees could be required to pay agency or fair-share fees to cover the cost of collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustments—but that employees can’t be forced to cover a union’s political activities.

Mark Janus, an Illinois public sector employee, challenged an Illinois law that required non-union workers to pay agency fees. Janus was forced to pay $44 a month in agency shop fees to the AFSCME union. Agency shop fees are paid by those public sector employees who choose not to belong to a union but are still covered by a collective bargaining agreement.  Janus argued that requiring him to pay these fees was a violation of his First Amendment rights.

The Supreme Court found Janus’ argument persuasive, agreeing that the First Amendment prohibits public sector entities from collecting fees from non-union workers without their consent. Justice Samuel Alito Jr., writing for the majority, stated “Neither an agency fee nor any other payment to the union may be deducted from a nonmember’s wages, nor may any other attempt be made to collect such a payment, unless the employee affirmatively consents to pay.” Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Neil Gorsuch joined in the majority opinion.

This decision makes every state a right-to-work state for public sector employees. What does this mean? It is now illegal for public sector employers to require workers to join a union or pay related fees as a condition of employment. Many states, including Nevada, have similar laws on the books for private sector employees.

Union membership in the United States has experienced a significant decline in recent years. In 2017, 10.7% of workers in the United States were union members. That accounts for about 7.2 million public sector employees and 7.6 million private sector employees. For comparison, in 1983, 20% of workers in the United States were union members.

United States Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan wrote the dissenting opinion. Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen G. Breyer, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg followed suit. Justice Elena Kagan shared a summary of the dissenting opinion from the bench; this act symbolized the robust resistance to the final ruling. Recent Supreme Court rulings suggest a pattern that favors the conservative side of the isle.