Supreme Court Strikes a Big Blow at Public Sector Unions

The court decided that public employees can’t be required to chip in to the unions that represent them.

A pro-labor demonstrator outside the Supreme Court in February 2018.Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

The Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that public sector workers cannot be required to chip in to the unions that represent them. The 5-4 ruling in Janus v. AFSCME deals a devastating blow to the labor movement and one of its most critical sources of funding.

Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, said that charging these fees “violates the free speech rights of nonmembers by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern.” 

Union leaders feared that the court would weaken labor with its decision. “It’s clear that moneyed interests are behind this case and it’s obvious that it is nothing more than a political attack to further rig the system against working people,” American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees President Lee Saunders in a written statement prior to the ruling.

The plaintiff in the case was Mark Janus, a child support specialist employed by the state of Illinois who decided that he did not want pay dues to the union that negotiates on his behalf. While unions cannot force workers to join, they can require employees in unionized workplaces to pay a “fair-share” fee to cover union benefits.

Lawyers for Janus argued that forcing workers to help finance unions infringes on their First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Anti-union crusaders such as the State Policy Network painted the case as a way to “defund and defang” unions. 

Unions countered that this question had been resolved nearly 40 years ago. In 1977, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that union dues weren’t a serious threat to free speech, but that unions must erect a financial wall between their workplace activities and their political activism to ensure that they weren’t forcing employees to contribute to political activities.


There are 17.3 million employees of state and local governments; of those, 58 percent are represented by unions, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a pro-labor think tank. Prior to today’s ruling, the EPI argued that black women—who make up nearly one-fifth of public employees—would suffer the most from an anti-union decision in Janus

Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of labor research at Cornell University, warns that the ruling could add to the sense that organized labor is headed for extinction. “It takes power to change the law,” she says. “The only time the labor movement has actually gotten labor law reform is when they organized like crazy.”

AFSCME says the decision will only intensify its ongoing organizing efforts. “Over the last few years,” Saunders writes, “we’ve trained more than 25,000 members to step up and become activists, nearly 18,000 workers have joined through new organizing drives, and we’ve held nearly 900,000 personal conversations with members about the value of union membership.”

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. It's our first time asking for an outpouring of support since screams of FAKE NEWS and so much of what Trump stood for made everything we do so visceral. Like most newsrooms, we face incredibly hard budget realities, and it's unnerving needing to raise big money when traffic is down.

So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate