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Landmark Labor Decision by United States Supreme Court

June 28, 2018
Julie Bittner

In this week’s landmark decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled that government workers who choose not to join a union cannot be charged for the cost of collective bargaining. Justice Samuel Alito wrote the majority opinion and the court’s conservative justices joined.  View case here.

In Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31, et al., the Petitioner Mark Janus was an Illinois state employee whose unit is represented by a public-sector union. Mr. Janus refused to join the union because he opposed many of the union’s decisions, including those taken in collective bargaining. Employees who declined to join the union were not assessed full union dues but instead were required to pay an “agency fee” which was a percentage of the union dues (here 78.06% of full union dues).

The employees were not asked and were not required to consent before the fees were deducted. In Illinois, the nonmembers were told that the agency fee covered lobbying, social and recreational activities, advertising, membership meetings and conventions and litigation, as well as other unspecified services that “may ultimately insure to the benefit of the members of the local bargaining unit.” Mr. Janus sued challenging the constitutionality of agency fees. In his case, the fees amounted to about $535/year.

This week, the Supreme Court held that the State’s extraction of agency fees from nonconsenting public-sector employees violates the First Amendment. In its decision, the Court overturned a 41-year-old decision, Abood v. Detroit Bd. Of Ed., 431 U.S. 209 (1977) and overturns laws in 22 states.

In addition to the historic argument in Abood regarding ‘free riders,’ Respondents argued that mandatory agency fees were necessary for unions to bargain with an adequately funded budget and to improve the efficiency of the work force. Respondents argued agency fees are needed to prevent nonmembers from enjoying the benefit of union representation without shouldering the costs (free-riding). The Supreme Court rejected each argument in turn, finding that the government’s proffered interests did not justify the heavy burden of agency fees on nonmembers’ First Amendment interests.

As a result, states and public-sector unions may no longer extract agency fees from nonconsenting employees. The Court held the First Amendment is violated when money is taken from nonconsenting employees for a public-sector union; employees must choose to support the union before anything is taken from them. Public-sector unions are still free to organize and represent their members, but cannot compel non-members to support their activities.

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Julie T. Bittner
Julie T. Bittner
Partner – West Des Moines

1501 42nd St., Suite 465, West Des Moines, IA 50266
P: (515) 453-8509 / F: (515) 267-1408
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