WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that
government workers can't be forced to contribute to labor unions that
represent them in collective bargaining, dealing a serious financial
blow to organized labor.
The justices are scrapping a 41-year-old
decision that had allowed states to require that public employees pay
some fees to unions that represent them, even if the workers choose not
The 5-4 decision fulfills a longtime wish of
conservatives to get rid of the so-called fair share fees that
non-members pay to unions in roughly two dozen states. The court ruled
that the laws violate the First Amendment by compelling workers to
support unions they may disagree with.
"States and public-sector unions may no
longer extract agency fees from nonconsenting employees," Justice Samuel
Alito said in his majority opinion for the court's five conservative
President Donald Trump weighed in minutes
after the decision was handed down, while Alito still was reading a
summary of it from the bench.
"Big loss for the coffers of the Democrats!" Trump said in a tweet.
In dissent, Justice Elena Kagan wrote of the
big impact of the decision. "There is no sugarcoating today's opinion.
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."
The court's three other liberal justices joined the dissent.
The court split 4-4 the last time it
considered the issue in 2016 following the death of Justice Antonin
Scalia. Organized labor is a big supporter of Democratic candidates and
interests. Last year, unions strongly opposed Justice Neil Gorsuch's
nomination by Trump. Gorsuch was in the majority on Wednesday.
The unions say the outcome could affect more
than 5 million government workers in about two dozen states and the
District of Columbia.
The case involving Illinois state government
worker Mark Janus is similar to the one the justices took up in 2016.
At that time, the court appeared to be ready to overrule a 1997 high
court decision that serves as the legal foundation for the fair share
fees. But Scalia's death left the court tied, and a lower court ruling
in favor of the fees remained in place.
The unions argued that so-called fair share
fees pay for collective bargaining and other work the union does on
behalf of all employees, not just its members. More than half the states
already have right-to-work laws banning mandatory fees, but most
members of public-employee unions are concentrated in states that don't,
including California, New York, and Illinois.
Labor leaders fear that not only will
workers who don't belong to a union stop paying fees, but that some
union members might decide to stop paying dues if they could in essence
get the union's representation for free.
A recent study by Frank Manzo of the
Illinois Public Policy Institute and Robert Bruno of the University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign estimated that public-sector unions could
lose more than 700,000 members over time as a result of the ruling and
that unions also could suffer a loss of political influence that could
depress wages as well.