In 'most important labor decision in decades,' Supreme Court appears ready to weaken unions
- The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 31, and despite its focus on union fees in the public sector, it may end up being "the most important labor law decision ... possibly ever [and] at least in decades," Phillip Wilson, president and general counsel of the Labor Relations Institute, told attendees at the Society for Human Resource Management's employment law and legislative conference March 12.
- The case involves an Illinois child support specialist who challenged the $45 a month — called an agency or fair share fee — he had to pay to the union that represents him, despite not being a member. He argued that the agency fee violated his First Amendment rights, because it financed speech intended to influence the government's personnel policies. He contended that the fee is no different from requiring him to subsidize a group that lobbies the government.
- Wilson told attendees at the SHRM conference that it's looking like the Supreme Court will issue a 5-4 decision in the employee's favor.
While the case involves a public-sector employer, the issue has various potential ramifications for those in the private sector. For one, it may deplete unions' resources. "Ultimately, there will be less money to deploy," Wilson said, leaving unions with less for lobbying, protesting and other activities. And as a result of that, stakeholders could see additional momentum for right-to-work laws, he said.
In a statement, Angela Cornell, a Cornell University law professor and labor law clinic director for the school, said a decision in Janus' favor would substantially weaken collective rights and facilitate the "free-riding" denounced in earlier Supreme Court decisions.
And in an op-ed to The Washington Post, Shaun Richman, a union organizing director, predicted chaos in the workplace if the fee is struck down. Richman said the fair share fee is traded for a no-strike clause in most union contracts. The clauses, he said, buy employers a period of guaranteed labor peace.
Wilson acknowledged that some believe a ruling in Janus' favor might actually help unions. They say that if unions are unable to compel fees, they'll be energized, forced to add more value for employees. Personally, however, he disagrees. "Unions in general are in deep trouble if Janus becomes the law of the land," he said. "If there was a moment of truth, this is it for them."
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