Supreme Court Case Threatens the Future of Unions

If the plaintiff wins, public sector unions could face major budget cuts.

While at the Eastchester-Dyre Avenue subway station in the Bronx, Bernard Wilkerson, a worker for NYC Transit and State Assembly District Leader, stood at the front of a crowded MTA break room on January 16 and asked, “Let’s do an experiment. How many people here know about the Janus Supreme Court case, and how it could impact unions, and you directly?”

Not a single person knew. Not even the manager. Wilkerson says that most members of the Transit Workers Union Local 100 have no idea that the Supreme Court is about to hear a case that could result in the rapid dissolution of unions.

The Chicago Teachers Union strike in 2012. Spencer Tweedy/Flickr

On February 26, the Supreme Court will hear Janus vs. ASFCME, which could have devastating effects on labor unions across the country. Under the current law, when someone is hired by a unionized public-sector organization, they are not obligated to join the union. But if they decide not to, they are still compelled to pay agency shop fees, which helps fund services these non-members benefit from, like collective bargaining.

Mark Janus, the lead plaintiff in the case, is one of three people that filed a case against his local Illinois chapter of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees in 2015. He claims that paying these shop fees is a violation of his First Amendment rights. Since the union collects his money and uses it across the organization, the union can fund campaigns for people he doesn’t personally support. Therefore, he argues that all fees should be optional for public sector union workers.

This could potentially overturn the 1977 Supreme Court case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which ruled that non-members had to pay shop fees, but that unions weren’t allowed to use these fees for political activities. If the court agrees with Janus and makes shop fees optional, public sector unions could potentially lose a substantial chunk of their income.

“If you have to volunteer to pay for something, unless you are a true zealot, you aren’t going to pay,” Bill Farrell, communications director for labor and union law firm Pitta LLP, said. “It’s just human nature.”

The consequences of this case, if the court rules in favor of the plaintiff, would be similar to what happened in the Newspaper Guild strike in 1990, Farrell said. When employees of the New York Daily News contract expired, the Guild went on strike. The publishers, who had a $115 million deficit from the past decade, were unwavering in their demands to fire 700 to 1,000 unionized workers.

The strike lasted for a year and ended with a big win for the publishers. Disappointed and dispirited, union members forced the Guild out by not paying union fees. This strike impacted several other news organizations as well, and ultimately weakened union representation long-term for many media companies.

“People don’t know the history,” transit union member Wilkerson said. “They don’t understand what the union has done for them.”

Transit Unions aren’t the only ones who are worried about what might happen. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, is also concerned about the security and stability of public sector unions.

“These powerful interests want to gut one of the last remaining checks on their control — a strong and united labor movement that fights for equity and opportunity for all, not just the privileged few,” Weingarten said. “And under the guise of the First Amendment, they want to overturn a 40-year precedent that’s been reaffirmed numerous times. In other words, this would be a radical departure from well-established law.”

Politicians, advocacy groups and union leaders across the country filed a joint amicus brief to the Supreme Court detailing how making union fees optional not only would make unions weaker, but ultimately would harm the working class.  Mayor Bill De Blasio also participated in this brief, saying that union workers are an important part of the city’s population.

“Our city is stronger because of unions’ ability to organize and fight for all of our rights,” he said. “Especially in the face of our current political climate, we should be bolstering tools for empowering and protecting workers not making them more difficult to come by.”

On the other hand, if the Supreme Court rules to make fees optional, those same workers could see a positive benefit:  extra income.

“The union automatically takes money out from my paycheck,” Wilkerson said. “It’s about $1,600 in a year. Can you imagine what you could do with that money? That’s like, the cost of a TV during Black Friday.”

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