Union Power Hangs In The Balance Of This New SCOTUS Case

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Kevin Daley Supreme Court correspondent
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The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Thursday to hear a case concerning the constitutionality of so-called union fair-share fees, raising the prospect that the justices could deal a serious blow to public sector union power during a term already burgeoning with landmark cases.

The case, Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), presents the matter of forced union fees for public employees, something of a hobby horse for the Court’s conservative justices. Though public sector unions cannot force public employees to give contributions to the organization for political activities, it can require contributions related to expenses incurred during contract negotiations. The distinction between forms of mandatory payments was created in the 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education decision.

Mark Janus, a child support specialist in the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family, argues these compulsory fees violate his First Amendment rights, as the nature of a contract negotiation clearly implicates political issues. Though Janus is not a member of the AFSCME, the state still deducts a fee from his monthly paycheck to cover collective bargaining and administrative expenses.

Right-to-work advocates praised the Court’s decision, while union leaders savaged the grant as a victory for well-heeled corporate interests.

“[W]e are now one step closer to freeing over 5 million public sector teachers, police officers, firefighters, and other employees from the injustice of being forced to subsidize a union as a condition of working for their own government,” National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation President Mark Mix said in a statement.

Lee Saunders, president of the AFSCME called the case a well-coordinated political attack on working people.

“This case is yet another example of corporate interests using their power and influence to launch a political attack on working people and rig the rules of the economy in their own favor,” she said.

“The merits of the case, and 40 years of Supreme Court precedent and sound law, are on our side,” she added. “We look forward to the Supreme Court honoring its earlier rulings.”

The Court last considered this issue in Friedrichs v. CTA, but Justice Antonin Scalia died before an opinion was issued, resulting in a 4-4 split. Therefore, the Janus grant Thursday was not unexpected. With the ascent of Justice Neil Gorsuch as Scalia’s successor, it appears the conservative bloc will achieve in Janus what it nearly accomplished in Friedrichs.

The case is one of 11 the high court agreed to hear, of the several thousand petitions filed over the summer recess.

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