Supreme Court takes aim at public unions
The Supreme Court this week appeared poised to deal a crippling blow to public-sector unions after justices indicated in oral arguments that compelling nonunion members to pay union dues could be unconstitutional. Mark Janus, an Illinois public employee, is suing the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees over the $45 in monthly “fair share fees” he pays to the union as required by state law. Illinois and 21 other states allow public-sector unions to charge nonmembers such fees to cover the costs of collective bargaining, the rationale being that all employees benefit, even those who aren’t in the union. But Janus says those contributions violate his right to free speech, because the union takes political positions with which he might disagree. “The fundamental issue is my right to choice,” Janus said on the Supreme Court steps.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court’s swing vote, took a hostile attitude to the pro-union argument. The Supreme Court upheld fair share fees in the 1977 case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, provided the money is only used for contract negotiations and not political organizing. But Kennedy questioned whether anything a public-sector union does can be apolitical, because collective bargaining affects state budgets. “If you do not prevail in this case, the unions will have less political influence. Yes or no?” Kennedy asked union lawyer David Frederick, who answered “yes.” Kennedy then replied, “Isn’t that the end of this case?”
What the columnists said
“Overturning mistaken decisions is an occasional duty of the Supreme Court,” said George Will in NationalReview.com. They now have a golden opportunity to undo the damage of Abood. “Money is fungible.” It’s impossible to separate money spent on contract negotiations from the money unions spend on political organizing. And organize they do. Government workers’ unions spent $63.9 million during the 2016 election cycle, with 90 percent of it going to Democratic candidates.
This was never about free speech, said Matt Ford in NewRepublic.com. From the beginning, the Janus case has been a political project, funded by deep-pocketed conservative donors intent on gutting the Democratic Party, which relies on labor’s organizing clout in its campaigns. “It’s not hard to see the political ramifications if unions lose in Janus.” Conservatives should be careful what they wish for, said Dana Milbank in The Washington Post. Everything from government-required bar dues to vaccinations could soon be challenged as “compelled speech.” Whatever happened to “judicial restraint?”
This case is an existential threat to the labor movement, said Charles Pierce in Esquire.com. When Wisconsin barred fair share fees in 2011, the percentage of unionized public workers dropped from half to just over a quarter within five years. With the Supreme Court expected to issue a ruling in June, “it’s looking like a grim death for organized labor in the very near future.”