Supreme Court hears arguments in mandatory union dues case

  • 26 February 2018
  • NormanL
Big day in the high court

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a case that could decide the fate of public sector labor unions. At issue is whether those unions can force non-members to pay union dues -- dues that are often used for activities (political advocacy among them) the dues payer may find objectionable. Here is some background on the case:

Mark Janus remembers getting his first pay check from the Illinois Department of Public Health, where he works as a bookkeeper, and wondering about the $50 fee deducted to pay dues to a union he'd never agreed to join.

More than a decade later, the disagreement over that fee has brought Janus before the U.S. Supreme Court, as the plaintiff in a case that could change the landscape of public sector unionism in the United States. The high court will hear oral arguments in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) on Monday morning. Janus and his attorneys are asking the court to overturn a previous decision and "declare [mandatory public sector union] fees unconstitutional."

Over the years, Janus estimates, he's contributed more than $6,000 to the union—all against his will. Even so, he says it's not about the lost money.

"It's about my rights," Janus told Reason. "My right to say 'no' is at least as important as my right to say 'yes.'"

Broadly speaking, courts at all levels are reluctant to overturn precedent without very good cause. But it isn't impossible, and in this instance, the court should decide that compulsory union dues are unconstitutional. While this doesn't mean the unions will disappear overnight, it does mean they will have to convince employees that their services and political activities are worth the payroll deduction.

In short, they will have to action, and a mindset, not normally associated with labor unions. For the Supreme Court, it's an opportunity to get things right:

Monday's oral arguments will be the second chance for most members of the current court to hear about the mandatory dues issue. In many ways, Janus is best thought of as a sequel to Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a 2016 Supreme Court case. That case ended in a 4–4 draw after Justice Antonin Scalia's sudden death left the Court with an even number of conservative and liberal members.

For obvious reasons, that means all eyes in this case will be fixed on the newest justice, Neil Gorsuch. Attorneys representing Janus tell Reason that there is not much in Gorsuch's legal history that gives a clear indication of his perspective going into the case. More generally, though, the conservative Gorsuch's originalist views suggest he may be skeptical of the union's side of the case.

The Gorsuch appointment looms large in this one -- proving yet again that elections matter, and their consequences can reach very far.