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Supreme Court's conservatives undercut public-sector unions

Well-funded conservative efforts to undermine public-sector unions have been ongoing for decades. Today, the Supreme Court rewarded those efforts.
Image: FILE PHOTO: Police officers stand in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington
FILE PHOTO: Police officers stand in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, DC, U.S., January 19, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Thayer/File Photo

Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court considered a case that would have done serious harm to public-sector unions, but the court's conservative faction needed one more vote. After Justice Antonin Scalia's death, and Senate Republicans' refusal to confirm a compromise nominee from then-President Obama, the high court split 4-4 on the issue of "agency fees."

The reprieve was temporary.

The U.S. Supreme Court dealt a crippling blow Wednesday to unions representing millions of the nation's public employees.The justices said in a 5-4 opinion that state government workers who choose not to join a union cannot be compelled to pay a share of union dues for covering the cost of negotiating contracts. Unions had said such an outcome would cut off a source of income and diminish their political clout in the 23 states where they bargain for both members and non-members alike.

The ruling in Janus v. AFSCME is online here (pdf). It was a 5-4 decision, and you can probably safely guess which justices were part of the five-member majority.

Why is the ruling important? In a recent piece for NBC News, Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson, the president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, explained the underlying issue surrounding public-sector unions that require employees who are not union members to pay agency fees.

"The idea is that even public employees who are not members benefit from the collective bargaining of that union, and therefore should pay for the union's representation," Levinson wrote. "Without the ability of unions to charge these agency fees, unions would be spending a great deal of time and money negotiating contracts that benefit both members of unions and non-union members. This creates the problem of non-union 'free-riders' -- workers who benefit from the union's collective bargaining efforts but don't pay for them."

In 1977, the Supreme Court largely endorsed the practice. Today, the court overturned the 41-year-old precedent.

Donald Trump, whose superficial understanding of current events continues to amaze, responded to the ruling this morning by tweeting, "Supreme Court rules in favor of non-union workers who are now, as an example, able to support a candidate of his or her choice without having those who control the Union deciding for them. Big loss for the coffers of the Democrats!"

In reality, public employees -- before today's ruling -- could be forced to pay costs associated with collective bargaining, not campaign expenses.

Workers were already able to "support a candidate of his or her choice."

Putting aside the president's ongoing confusion, the outcome does not come as a surprise. The case, brought by a plaintiff who didn't understand his lawsuit and who actually supports collective bargaining, was one of the year's easiest to predict. As Slate's Mark Joseph Stern recently explained, Janus "is a partisan vehicle designed to serve partisan goals, carried across the finish line by five justices who might as well admit that the Constitution has nothing to do with it."

What happens now? Circling back to our previous coverage, millions of public-sector workers will now be able to opt-out of their agency fees, which in turn further weakens unions, which in turn would undermine workers' ability to negotiate for better benefits.

It will also, naturally, undermine labor's political potency -- which has long been the point of the well-funded conservative efforts to overturn the original 1977 ruling that conservative justices just cast aside.