On its final day in session of its 2017-2018 term, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that will hurt public sector unions in the pocketbook, and deal a blow to labor's clout in the political arena.
In the case of Janus v. AFSCME, the court ruled, in a 5-4 vote with conservatives winning out, that government employee unions cannot require represented workers to pay a cent in union dues or fees.
It's a decision that could cost labor unions tens of millions of dollars — depending on how many workers simply decide that they'd rather have that money in their paycheck, rather than pay it to a labor organization. And they can make that decision and still live and work under contracts negotiated by unions providing pay levels and benefits packages. And while it's impossible to predict what the impact will be on any given labor union, it seems a certainty that every one of them will see some financial hit.
The case affects a large swath of employees in America: police and firefighters, teachers, public health workers, municipal employees and many, many others. The case is also significant because the public sector has a high rate of unionization — representing more than a third of all such workers in 2017. (That compares to just 6.5 percent of private sector jobs that were union during the same timeframe.)
So Janus potentially gets right at one of the real strengths of the otherwise battered American labor movement.
Among those celebrating the ruling is Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers-funded group that's been part of a major national effort to enact laws limiting labor's ability to automatically collect dues from workers in union-represented jobs.
AFP senior policy fellow Akash Chougule argues that the ruling isn't anti-union. "If you like your union you can keep your union," he says, "What we're saying and, again, what the court made clear, is you simply cannot force workers against their will to fund their union."
Prior to this week's ruling, government employees already had the right to not pay anything to fund the union's political activity — but they were required to pay to the union something called an "agency fee" to cover costs of negotiating contracts that they benefited from. Under the Janus decision, that requirement is gone. No contribution to the union is required whatsoever for government workers nationwide.
University of California, Berkeley labor specialist Harley Shaiken says Janus is meant to weaken unions "and it will likely do just that."
It's hard to forecast what the impact will be for any given union. But labor will be up against the following dynamic: Employees who don't like unions can be expected to opt out and take the cash, but this could also tempt those simply ambivalent about being in a union to opt out. The single largest public sector union in the U.S. is the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, better known as AFSCME. Its president, Lee Saunders, says of Janus, "You know, it's hard to take," before adding, "We're gonna have to make some adjustments, but this is an opportunity for us."
Saunders notes that the court gave indications in an earlier case three years ago that this is the direction it would go with this case. So the AFSCME leader says the union had already been adapting to the new reality. He says AFSCME has greatly improved outreach to workers about what the union does for them. He says there's more personal contact too, which includes lots of listening on the union's part.
"We kind of took that for granted — the importance of communication," says Saunders, "the importance of individual communication." He says he expects that approach to help mitigate some of the financial loss.
Saunders also points to a new era in labor activism across America, that comes even as the courts make things more difficult for unions. He points to the massive protests and strikes that have led to pay hikes for teachers in places like West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona. He says it's an indication that labor activism is still very much alive, regardless of unfavorable court cases.
And there's some evidence that unions that can make the case to workers that they are delivering value can limit the dues defections now allowed under law. Shaiken says look to Nevada. It's a so-called right-to-work state, where not paying union dues is already allowed for private sector workers in union shops. Despite that, the culinary workers union in Las Vegas has remained a force both in organizing and in politics.
Shaiken points out that it's the largest union in the state, with 57,000 members. "Yet 95 percent of these 57,000 workers pay union dues. Why? Because they see the effectiveness in their daily life," Shaiken says.
That may be a best-case scenario. Other unions around the country are now challenged to find their own version of that model. This all comes as labor leaders pledge to be more active than ever in the 2018 and 2020 elections, where they'll find very well funded adversaries.