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Supreme Court deals major blow to public sector unions

The Supreme Court dealt a major blow to public sector unions on Wednesday in a case that could shake their financial structure and undermine their future stability.

The justices struck down an Illinois law that required non-union workers to pay fees that go to collective bargaining.

“It is hard to estimate how many billions of dollars have been taken from nonmembers and transferred to public-sector unions in violation of the First Amendment. Those unconstitutional exactions cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely,” Alito wrote.

In a blistering dissent, Justice Elena Kagan wrote, “The First Amendment was meant for better things. It was meant not to undermine but to protect democratic governance—including over the role of public-sector unions.”

Reading from the bench, she added: “There’s no sugarcoating today’s opinion.”

At stake in the case

At the center of the debate is a 1977 Supreme Court opinion known as Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that says while non-members of public sector unions cannot be required to pay fees for a union’s political activities, they can be required to pay so-called “fair share” fees pertaining to issues such as employee grievances, physical safety and training.

In recent years, so-called Right to Work groups as well as some conservatives on the court have pushed for it to be overturned. Wednesday, nearly half of all states have laws on the books that allow broad fair share fees for public employees.

The case was brought by Mark Janus, an Illinois public sector employee, who challenged the fees. He said that because he is a government employee, issues germane to collective bargaining are inherently political. He argued that the First Amendment protected him from having to support such political expression.

Janus has been represented in the challenge by groups such as the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and the Liberty Justice Center.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents public sector employees, has described the challenge as a threat to American workers.

The public sector unions argue that they are required by law to represent all employees regardless of if they are members and that no one is required to join the union.

If non-members don’t have any obligation to pay fair share fees for the collective bargaining obligations, they would become free riders, benefiting from the representation without sharing the costs, the unions say. The coffers of public sector unions would also suffer if non-members were able to get services for free.

Alito noted, and dismissed, the impact to union funds.

“We recognize that the loss of payments from non-members may cause unions to experience unpleasant transition costs in the short term, and may require unions to make adjustments in order to attract and retain members,” Alito wrote. “But we must weigh these disadvantages against the considerable windfall that unions have received under Abood for the past 41 years.”

The Trump administration sided with Janus in the case, reversing course from the Obama administration in a 2016 case when the Supreme Court heard arguments in a similar challenge, but deadlocked in a 4-4 split following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro issued this statement following the Supreme Court decision today in the Janus case, which ruled that non-union workers cannot be required to pay fees to public sector unions who collectively bargain for their wages in the workplace.
“Public-employee unions play a vital role in Pennsylvania, from striving for fair wages to protecting workers’ rights,” Attorney General Shapiro said. “Unions give workers a voice and make government operate more effectively. I am deeply disappointed by today’s decision – but I am not deterred. I’ll keep fighting for the issues workers care about – from keeping the tips they earn, to protecting them from wage theft, to upholding their right to bargain collectively – which gives them a fairer chance to build a better life for themselves and their families.
“As Justice Kagan said today in dissenting from the ruling, the majority’s decision ‘prevents the American people, acting through their state and local officials, from making important choices about workplace governance.’  I believe it was the wrong decision for Pennsylvania workers, and I’ll continue to uphold the rights of working people across our Commonwealth every day.”
Earlier this year, Attorney General Shapiro joined with 20 other Attorneys Generals and filed an amicus brief which argued the Supreme Court should continue to defer to states’ judgment on how best to manage their workforces.

Even though the U.S. Supreme Court today delivered a long-expected decision in the Janus case backed by anti-worker extremists, SEIU members and leaders voiced their resolve to continue sticking together, uniting more working people in unions and holding politicians accountable for creating more good, union jobs.

Charnel Brownlee, a school bus driver for the Philadelphia School District and 32BJ SEIU member:
“The Court made their decision, and so have the members of my union. We are determined to stand strong. We know how the union has benefited us and our families. We’ve been able to support our communities because of our good union jobs. This decision will not deter us.”
Stefanie Henry, unit clerk and nursing aide, Westmoreland Manor, and member of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania:
“We should always be allowed to fight for changes that improve our nursing homes and resident care without fear of punishment. Working people need more opportunities to join unions, not fewer, and we will not let a court case stand in our way of keeping the middle class secure.”
Karen Sodl, Allentown School District Food Service and President of Local 391A of the Pennsylvania Joint Board of Workers United, SEIU:
“Today the Supreme Court came down on the wrong side of history, but we are rising up. No court case, no billionaire and no propaganda campaign can stop us from coming together in unions to raise wages, improve jobs, and make our communities stronger.”
Tiffany White,  Philadelphia caseworker, and member of SEIU Local 668:
“Despite today’s decision, our union stands unbroken and unbowed. Our members see this decision, and the court case behind it, for what it is: the latest in a long line of attacks against working people. We know that as long as we stand together, no court case or ruling is going to take away our union.”
Matthew Yarnell, President of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania:
“Despite continual opposition, nurses and healthcare workers have fought for – and won – better standards for themselves and their patients for decades. Today’s Janus decision will not deter healthcare professionals from working to secure better wages and benefits, safer workplaces and a healthcare system that provides every American with access to quality, affordable care.”
Gabe Morgan, Vice President, 32BJ SEIU & President of the Pennsylvania SEIU State Council:
“Unions have been under attack for years. Wealthy special interest groups can use their money to try to keep working people back but that only makes us fight harder. Nothing has ever been given to us; we’ve always had to fight. Today’s decision only strengthens our resolve and galvanizes us to hit the streets in mass for the 2018 and 2020 elections to elect candidates that support working people.”
Steve Catanese, President of SEIU Local 668:
“Our union was formed by workers who chose to stand together to create much-needed change.  The corporate special interests behind the Janus v. AFSCME case expect that this decision will break us. But we’re still here, standing together. We’re not going anywhere.”
David Melman, Manager, Pennsylvania Joint Board
“Despite this decision, we still believe America can have a future where people no longer work two or three jobs and still live in poverty. We’re going to keep standing together to let our elected leaders know that America needs good union jobs.”
Mary Kay Henry, SEIU International President: 
“This decision is yet another example of how billionaires rig the system against working people, but SEIU members won’t let the extremists behind this case divide us. We will stay united, help working men and women who are fighting to form unions and call on our elected leaders to do everything in their power to make it easier for working people to join together in unions.”

NextGen America President Tom Steyer issued the following statement:

“The Janus vs. AFSCME Supreme Court ruling undermines the fundamental right of workers to hold powerful corporate interests accountable and to fight for the wages and futures they deserve. This ruling further allows corporations to rig the rules against American workers in order to line the pockets of their wealthy shareholders and executives. Make no mistake, today’s decision is the result of a decades-long effort to stack the court with conservative judges who have equated money with speech, bestowed rights to corporations, and attempted to dismantle unions.

“In the face of this decision, I and NextGen America stand in solidarity with AFSCME Council 13 and public sector unions across the country and will continue to fight alongside them for our deepest values and a positive agenda that puts the American people ahead of corporate profits and preserves the promise of our democracy.”

This story is breaking and will be updated.