September 08, 2017

With Janus case, labor faces another court challenge

Author: Matt Smith
Source: NYSUT Communications
supreme court
Caption: FILE PHOTO: Pro-union forces rally outside the Supreme Court in January 2016. Photo by Mike Campbell.

The nation’s labor movement dodged a bullet last year when the U.S. Supreme Court split on Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association, a case in which plaintiffs challenged the legal right of public-sector unions to collect member dues to cover the costs associated with collective bargaining.

An unfavorable ruling would have decimated the solidarity and finances of public unions by allowing members to become “free riders” — meaning they would no longer have to pay dues to the very unions that negotiate and secure their salary, health coverage and retirement protections.

Yet, while the nation’s labor movement breathed a collective sigh of relief following the court’s deadlock on Friedrichs, there was little time for celebration. That’s because a new challenge from anti-labor forces was already on the horizon, despite decades of settled law.

The latest threat facing unions is known officially as Janus vs. AFSCME, a case being bankrolled by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and the right-wing Liberty Justice Center. Lawyers for the two anti-union groups, who in June requested the Supreme Court hear the case, represent Mark Janus, an Illinois health care worker who argues he should not be forced to pay monthly union fees. The court could hear arguments in Janus in October.

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The Janus challenge has already failed in the lower courts. A March ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit upheld the Supreme Court’s 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education decision that said unions have the right to require the payment of dues by workers represented in collective bargaining.

As was the case in Friedrichs, Janus argues that the mandatory payment of union dues equates to forced political speech, which therefore violates First Amendment rights.

It’s important to note: While the Abood ruling upheld the right of unions to collect dues to cover the costs of bargaining, that same decision also determined public-sector union members had the right to opt out of contributing toward a union's political-action activities. In other words, unions cannot take anything for granted, especially in today’s political climate. And, as with Friedrichs, a loss in the Janus case could devastate the ranks and finances of public unions nationwide.