The North American labour movement took a disappointing hit on June 27th. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that workers who did not sign union cards cannot be made to pay fees to public sector unions. This outcome puts union funding at risk, and undermines unions’ collective bargaining power.
This case centres around a union’s ability to charge “fair share” fees. When a majority of employees in a bargaining unit choose to be represented by a union, the union becomes the exclusive bargaining representative of all workers within that unit. However, under federal law, no person can be made to join a union as a condition of employment. This means workers who choose not to join the union are still covered by the union’s collective-bargaining agreement, and are charged fair share fees rather than union dues.
Fair share fees are calculated as a percentage of union dues, and cover the basic costs the union accumulates when representing the worker. These fees can only fund activities related to collective bargaining and contract administration – they cannot be used to fund political advocacy.
In Janus v. AFSCME the plaintiff, Mark Janus, an Illinois public sector employee, alleged that fair share fees are unconstitutional. He claims that as a government employee, issues relating to collective bargaining are automatically political; therefore, he argues, the First Amendment protects him from having to support political expression he does not believe in.
A similar case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, made it to the Supreme Court in 1977. In this case, the court confirmed that collecting fair share fees from non-members does not violate the Constitution. Several similar challenges have reached the Supreme Court within the last decade, and last week, Janus v. AFSCME overturned this 41-year precedent.
Taking away the capacity to charge fair share fees hurts the labour movement because unions are still required to provide services and representation to non-member workers. This ruling will encourage more and more workers to opt out of becoming a member and become “free riders,” benefiting from the union’s efforts without paying for it.
Along with the verdict, another major concern about Janus’ case is that it was financed by a small group of foundations with ties to large and extremely powerful corporations. These organizations and policymakers are focusing their attack on public sector workers – the workforce with the strongest union presence – attempting to weaken their bargaining power.
This Supreme Court decision is disappointing, but it is certainly not the end for public-sector unions. In fact, it underestimates the spirit and conviction of the labour movement to uphold the values of fairness and equality in our societies. In the face of this ruling, it is crucial to remember the incredible progress the labour movement has made across North America over the years. The Janus v AFSCME ruling was undoubtedly a setback, but unions will continue fighting for the rights and fair treatment of all workers.