Supreme Court is poised to issue a major labor ruling as its term ends

  • The U.S. Supreme Court is due on Wednesday to rule in a major case that threatens a key source of revenue for organized labor.
  • The case is a challenge to the legality of fees that non-union workers in certain states are required to pay to unions representing public employees such as teachers and police.
A person waves an American flag outside the the U.S. Supreme Court building as the court rules on the final opinions of term in Washington, D.C., on Monday, June 25, 2018.
Al Drago | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A person waves an American flag outside the the U.S. Supreme Court building as the court rules on the final opinions of term in Washington, D.C., on Monday, June 25, 2018.

The U.S. Supreme Court is due on Wednesday to rule in a major case that threatens a key source of revenue for organized labor, a challenge to the legality of fees that non-union workers in certain states are required to pay to unions representing public employees such as teachers and police.

Based on the Feb. 26 arguments in the case, the conservative-majority court appears likely to disallow the so-called agency fees, which provide millions of dollars to public-sector unions annually. Wednesday marks the last day for rulings in the nine-member court's current term, which began in October. The court has two cases left to decide, the other being a water rights dispute between Georgia and Florida.

The court may narrow or overturn a 1977 Supreme Court precedent that had allowed the agency fees, collected from millions of non-union workers in lieu of union dues to fund non-political activities like collective bargaining.

Two dozen states require these fees, and an estimated 5 million non-union workers for state and local governments pay them. Federal employees and private-sector workers do not.

Unions contend that mandatory agency fees are needed to eliminate the problem of what they call "free riders" — non-members who benefit from union representation, for example through salary and working conditions obtained in collective bargaining — without paying for it.

Conservative activists have taken aim at the fees as they seek to curb the influence of unions, which often support the Democratic Party and liberal causes. A ruling against the fees would deprives unions of a vital revenue stream, undercut their ability to attract new members and undermine their ability to spend in political races.

The plaintiff in the case is Mark Janus, a child-support specialist for the state of Illinois who opted not to join the union that represents employees like him, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Lawyers for Janus argued that forcing non-members to pay agency fees to unions whose views they may oppose violates their rights to free speech and free association under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment. A lower court had ruled against Janus, setting up the Supreme Court showdown.

The justices heard arguments in a similar case in 2016 involving non-union public school teachers in California, and appeared poised to overturn the 1977 precedent. But the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia weeks later left the court with an even split of conservatives and liberals, and its 4-4 decision in March 2016 failed to resolve the legal question.

Republican President Donald Trump's appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch last year restored the Supreme Court's conservative majority, and Gorsuch could case the deciding vote.