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Public Sector Union Clout May Suffer After Janus Case

As fee requirement falls, unions’ political influence could follow

Illinois state employee Mark Janus stands outside the Supreme Court after hearing the decision in Janus v. AFSCME. The court ruled in his favor, throwing doubt on the future of public sector unions. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Illinois state employee Mark Janus stands outside the Supreme Court after hearing the decision in Janus v. AFSCME. The court ruled in his favor, throwing doubt on the future of public sector unions. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Public sector unions, a backbone of organized labor’s political and policy influence, likely will face serious belt-tightening that could ultimately diminish their staffing and clout after one of the most consequential decisions of the Supreme Court’s term held that unions can no longer impose fees on nonmembers.

Representatives for unions and their conservative foes alike say they plan to take up new publicity campaigns in the aftermath of the court’s decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Unions will promote the benefits of union membership while their opponents will highlight to workers that they need not pay the collective-bargaining fees any longer.

Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, pledged legislation to remedy what they called a disastrous decision.

Rep. Tim Ryan said the 5-4 decision would “eviscerate public-sector labor unions,” while his fellow Ohio Democrat, Sen. Sherrod Brown, touted a bill aimed at preventing states from introducing laws that make it harder for workers to form unions. Such measures, though, stand no chance of moving in the GOP-controlled Congress.

Labor officials blasted the decision, calling it the result of corporate America’s decadeslong, anti-union lobbying and political money effort.

AFL-CIO chief Richard Trumka said the court’s majority, split along typical ideological lines, sided with a “dark web of corporations and wealthy donors who wish to take away the freedoms of working people. Until it is overturned, this decision will be a political stain on what is intended to be the most honorable, independent body in the world.”

But Trumka noted that unions would continue to ramp up their grass-roots efforts in the months ahead of the November midterm elections. “We have never depended on any politician or judge to decide our fate and we aren’t about to start now,” Trumka added in a news release.

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Impact on budgets

Union leaders offered varying responses about how the changes could affect their budgets.

Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, said nonunion fee payers made up about 3 percent of the union’s budget. She added that she expects conservative organizations will ramp up campaigns to convince members to drop out of unions altogether. “They are going to say, ‘Look what you get for free,’” she said. And she expects additional lawsuits challenging unions.

Lee Saunders, president of AFSCME, said he didn’t know what percentage of his budget comes from fee payers but noted public sector unions “may face some sort of loss, and that would result in some sort of revenue loss.”

And Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said that of the more than 1.7 million people the group represents, about 60,000 to 80,000 have paid the nonmember fees.

Unions have never been able to use the collective-bargaining fees to fund their political action committee coffers; that money comes only from voluntary donations. Still, the decision is expected to cut into unions’ ability to hire staff and exert influence on policy battles and political races. The Janus case was specific to public sector unions, which represent government employees, public teachers and police officers, among others.

“The stakes in this case are enormously consequential,” said Akash Chougule, a senior policy fellow at the conservative Americans for Prosperity. With public sector union members no longer compelled to fund labor’s advocacy, that “could have a significant impact on unions’ ability to impact government.”

Chougule added that the decision in the case, brought by Illinois state employee Mark Janus, is hardly the end of the debate.

AFP, which counts the conservative Koch brothers among its backers, will continue to press for state “right to work” laws that make it more difficult for workers to organize, while its foundation plans to launch an effort to let workers, such as teachers, know about the consequences of the decision.

Chougule called the Supreme Court’s decision “bold,” especially because the ruling holds that workers must opt in, not out, of paying union fees and dues. In 22 states, plus the District of Columbia, labor unions had been permitted to charge collective-bargaining fees even to nonunion members.

“We’re thrilled,” he added. Public sector unions will need written confirmation, he said, before they can collect fees and dues.

Fall publicity campaigns

Meanwhile, unions have been stepping up their own six-figure advertising and online effort, dubbed “Freedom to Join,” in recent weeks as they awaited the Janus decision, making a case for the collective-bargaining representation that typically leads to higher wages for unionized workers.

AFSCME, the union at the center of the case, has contributed about $5.2 million in political donations during the 2017-2018 election cycle, according to a tabulation by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. The American Federation of Teachers has contributed some $7.9 million to federal candidates, the center found.

The vast majority of those donations went to Democrats, revealing some of the political stakes should public sector unions wither away.

Some labor lawyers and union scholars predicted a dire future for, and even an end of, public sector unions because of the decision.

“There is no doubt that this decision profoundly impacts whether public sector unions will exist in the future,” said Lauren Novak, a Chicago-based partner in the labor and employment practice of law firm Schiff Hardin. “Without the ability to collect fair-share fees, many may not survive.”

What remains an open question, she added, is what it might also mean for the future of private sector unions.

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