The Supreme Court heard oral arguments over whether labor unions can force non-members to pay dues when they hold public sector jobs, and the upcoming verdict may have a major impact on organized labor going forward.
And one leading expert says if unions cannot count on compulsory dues, their next plan may be to get it from the taxpayers.
On Monday, justices heard the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME. Mark Janus is an employee with the Illinois Department of Public Health. He is not a member of AFSCME, but $50 is still taken out of his paycheck each month in union dues.
AFSCME contends that the collective bargaining it does on behalf of public sector employees ends up benefiting all workers, thus collecting $50 per month from people like Janus is reasonable.
National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation President Mark Mix says organized labor’s argument is full of holes.
“The fact that the unions have positioned themselves as the exclusive bargaining agent and the monopoly voice of all workers in the public sector is really the issue. This is the fundamental problem and the injustice of this particular situation. The unions say that everything they do benefits everybody they come in contact with. That’s just not true.
“So the idea is that Mark Janus, our client who we represented at the Supreme Court, is basically saying that what they’re doing in some cases hurts him. In some cases it’s arguable that it doesn’t help him. In some cases it probably does. But the bottom line is that he would lose his job if he did not pay these fees to the union,” said Mix.
It’s the compulsory policy aimed at non-members that Mix believes is unconstitutional.
“In order to work for his government and have a voice, he’s got to pay a private organization for that privilege. We believe that it all should be voluntary. If the union’s doing great work and they’re providing all these great benefits, then workers will join them voluntarily and that’s the way it should work,” said Mix.
Mix says organized labor often positions itself as looking out for the working class and middle class employees, but he alleges the reality is just the opposite.
“If Mark Janus wins this case, there’s nothing that stops any individual from joining a union. It won’t prohibit anything. It just simply gives individual workers the choice, and really, when you boil this out that’s what this is. It’s a battle, literally, between union officials and the rank-and-file workers they claim to represent.
“What they’re saying is, ‘If you give these workers a choice…they may decide to do something different,’ and that’s really the fundamental issue at the bottom of this case. Union official are worried that if workers are given the choice, they may not choose to support them financially,” said Mix.
National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation Staff Attorney William Messenger argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of Janus. Mix says Messenger was pleased with the way oral arguments went Monday, and he also highlighted how the various justices approached the discussion.
“In the last five years they have asked and talked about this issue, so they were well-informed,” said Mix, noting that the high court heard very similar cases in 2012, 2014, and 2016. The 2016 case deadlocked at 4-4 due to the death of Justice Scalia.
“Justice Kennedy was pretty animated and interested in this case. The First Amendment is really the ultimate question here. Justice Thomas did not ask a question. Justice Gorsuch did not ask a question. Roberts had a few, Alito had a couple, and Sotomayor and Kagan led the charge for the other side,” said Mix.
Gorsuch not asking a question leaves some mystery as to the final verdict, since the other eight justices are on the record with their views. While not hazarding a guess as to how the court will rule, Mix says he “hopes the fundamental argument of free speech will hold the day.”
If his side wins, Mix says unions will quickly start looking for other sources of revenue and in left-leaning states that money might come from the taxpayers.
“They’re trying to convince legislatures to give them the authority to collect money from taxpayers if they lose the Janus case. We’re seeing things pop in New York, in California, in Washington state, and Hawaii. They’re actually going to ask the taxpayers to pay the fees they can no longer collect from non-members if we win this case, said Mix.
He suspects that road will also wind up a dead end.
“I think that gets them deeper into the hole as opposed to providing solutions for them. They may win on the short term by getting taxpayers to fund it, but I think once taxpayers find out they’re paying a private organization taxpayer money to do the work they’re doing, I think that will be another problem for organized labor down the road,” said Mix.
Mix says a far better reaction would be for unions to shape up and show non-members there is great value in paying fees for ongoing representation in collective bargaining and other areas.
A ruling on Janus v. AFSCME is expected before the end of June.