Supreme Court Rules Employee First Amendment Rights Trump Public-Sector Union “Agency Fees”

On June 27, 2018, the United States Supreme Court issued one of the most anticipated decisions of the year, ruling that nonunion workers cannot be forced to pay fees to public-sector unions.  In the Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council (“AFSCME”) case, Illinois state employee Mark Janus challenged the $45 monthly fee he paid to the public-sector AFSCME union.  Janus was not a member of the AFSCME union.  However, public-sector employees who declined to join a public-sector union were still required to pay an “agency fee” instead of full union dues.  The “agency fee” could only cover collective bargaining costs, and not political advocacy costs.  The United States Supreme Court previously upheld the payment of such “agency fees” as constitutional in the 1977 Abood case.

Before today’s Supreme Court decision, Janus was required to pay the AFSCME a $45 “agency fee” every month.  This amounted to 78% of full union dues.  Janus argued that the “agency fee” was unconstitutional because it violated his First Amendment rights.  Moreover, the payment of fees to a public-sector union, whose contract negotiations were with the government, was a form of political advocacy.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Janus.  The Supreme Court overruled the 1977 Abood case and held that public-sector unions could no longer extract “agency fees” from nonconsenting employees.  The Supreme Court reasoned that employee First Amendment rights outweighed any other alleged state interests in “labor peace” or “the risk of ‘free riders’” (i.e. nonunion members receiving benefits from collective bargaining without paying full union dues).

The fact that the “agency fees” were being used for public-sector collective bargaining was central to the Supreme Court’s holding.  The Court recognized that public-sector bargaining has an inherently political nature, and includes such public matters as education, child welfare, healthcare, and minority rights.

On its face, this ruling impacts only public-sector unions, not private-sector unions. However, the Supreme Court’s interest in protecting employee First Amendment rights may apply in future decisions analyzing employee rights that may conflict with private-sector unions.

If you have questions about this groundbreaking Supreme Court case, please contact Erik Laiho or any other Davis Grimm Payne & Marra attorney at 206-447-0182.

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