Washington (AFP) – The US Supreme Court on Wednesday dealt a major blow to American organized labor, ruling that public sector unions cannot charge non-members fees to cover the costs of collective bargaining.
The 5-4 decision by the conservative-dominated court reversed a four-decade precedent and threatened to starve US labor unions of a once-dependable source of cash, weakening a traditional pillar of the Democratic Party in the process.
American unionization has been in steady decline since the 1950s, with the public sector one of its last bastions as police, firefighters and school teachers remain among the most heavily unionized workforces.
President Donald Trump swiftly hailed the ruling, which followed a concerted effort by conservative political donors and organizations, saying it allowed workers the freedom not to support union-chosen political candidates.
“Big loss for the coffers of the Democrats!” he tweeted.
However the issue before the court was not whether workers could be forced to pay for a union’s political activities — the court had already found that unconstitutional in 1977 — but whether unions could charge fees to non-members who still benefit from their labor contract negotiations.
Unions say freeloading should not be encouraged, and the ruling could leave public sector employees with little reason to pay for collective bargaining. By some estimates, the Supreme Court’s decision stands to shave off a substantial share of union membership.
But the court held Wednesday that even requiring workers to subsidize collective bargaining violated the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech.
“Forcing free and independent individuals to endorse ideas they find objectionable is always demeaning,” said Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority.
“Compelling a person to subsidize the speech of other private speakers raises similar First Amendment concerns.”
Wednesday’s landmark decision resulted from a complaint lodged by Mark Janus, an Illinois state child support worker who refused to join a public sector union and said being forced to pay for its collective bargaining violated his rights.
Opposing Janus were the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, supported by 20 states, including Illinois, and the capital District of Columbia.
– ‘Weaponizing’ the constitution’ –
In a dissent, the court’s four liberals said the majority had needlessly upset longstanding legal precedent and countless existing labor contracts across the country.
Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the minority, said the decision risked baselessly making every employment decision a matter of constitutional law.
“There is no sugarcoating today’s opinion,” Kagan wrote, accusing the court’s conservatives of “weaponizing the First Amendment” in economic policy and regulation.
“The majority overthrows a decision entrenched in this nation’s law — and in 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.”
Wednesday’s decision was not the first time the matter had been before the Supreme Court. But the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016 had left the bench deadlocked 4-4.
Trump’s appointment of Neil Gorsuch moved the court right of center, however, paving the way for conservatives to rack up major policy victories, including Tuesday’s decision upholding a travel ban mostly affecting people from predominantly Muslim countries.
The right-leaning Illinois Policy Institute, which represented Janus, said the decision meant government workers would now “get to choose for themselves whether they want to financially support their unions.”
But the left-of-center Economic Policy Institute said that “billionaire-backed organizations finally got their decision.”
“It will have profound implications, not just for the 6.8 million state and local government workers” represented by unions but “all 17.3 million state and local government workers and indeed for every working person throughout the country.”