In a setback for unions, the U.S. Supreme Court by a 5-4 vote Wednesday struck down the use of mandatory fees for nonmembers of public worker unions to help pay for the costs of collective bargaining.
Twenty-two states including California allow such fees, known as agency fees or fair share fees, to pay for the expenses of contract negotiations and grievance handling by public sector unions.
The fees are less than union dues and may not be used for political activities. Unions are required to represent all workers whether or not they are union members.
The high court majority said the fees violate the constitutional First Amendment right of free speech.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote:
“We conclude that this arrangement violates the free speech rights of nonmembers by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern.”
The private speech, Alito explained, is the union’s discussions in contract negotiations and grievance handling, as well as on some policy matters.
Justice Elena Kagan, in a dissent joined by three other justices, charged that the majority was:
“… weaponizing the First Amendment in a way that unleashes judges, now and in the future, to intervene in economic and regulatory policy.”
The decision was made in an Illinois case in which a state worker, child support specialist Mark Janus, challenged the agency fees. The court majority overruled a 41-year-old precedent in which the Supreme Court had upheld the imposition of the fees.
The decision drew an outpouring of statements of condemnation from Bay Area unions and California officials.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who wrote a friend-of-the-court brief defending the fees, said:
“The U.S. Supreme Court is threatening the ability of workers to engage in collective bargaining and of states to manage our workforce.”
U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, stated, “The Court’s decision today undermines the basic American premise, held up by courts for more than four decades, that if a union represents all employees in negotiating and administering a collective bargaining agreement, then all employees ought to share the costs of that representation.”
The South Bay Labor Council called the ruling “an attack on the labor movement and working families.”
But council executive officer Ben Field promised that:
“… across California and here in Silicon Valley we will continue to build strong unions to fight for living wages, a voice at work, decent working conditions and affordable housing.”
San Francisco Mayor Mark Farrell said:
“We should be growing our unions and strengthening our middle class, not leaving them vulnerable to the agenda of corporate special interests.”
The Oakland-based Service Employees International Union Local 1021 said it is the Bay Area’s largest public worker union, with more than 54,000 members in Northern California.
SEIU Local 1021 member Sasha Cutler, a 30-year nurse at San Francisco General Hospital, said:
“As a nurse I have seen first-hand the power of being in union with my coworkers. … Keeping our union strong means we can fight to improve standards and maintain staffing, all critical to patient care.”
Contra Costa AFL-CIO Labor Council executive director Margaret Hanlon-Gradie said:
“While we have expected the Janus decision for some time, none of us can completely predict its impact. Weakening collective bargaining and the rights of workers will hurt families and communities across the United States.”
Janus was represented in the case before the Supreme Court by lawyers from the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation of Springfield, Virginia.
Foundation president Mark Mix said:
“Today’s decision is a landmark victory for rights of public-sector employees coast-to-coast that will free millions of teachers, police officers, firefighters and other public employees from mandatory union payments.”