Should Government Employees Be Able to Withhold Union Fees?

Commentary & Community

Should Government Employees Be Able to Withhold Union Fees?


This week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that could have profound effects on government workers. The court is widely expected to rule that public sector employees may not be compelled as a condition of employment to pay fees that cover union administration and collective bargaining expenses.


The case is Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Council 31. Mark Janus is an employee of the state of Illinois who must pay the union an “agency fee” even though he chooses not to be a member of AFSCME. The union argues that this fee is fair because the union’s activities benefit non-members like Janus.


Mark Janus contends that compulsory payments to the union violate his First Amendment rights. He argues that supporting public sector unions is necessarily subsidizing their political engagement, since the bargaining and other activities of these unions directly impact public policy decisions. Janus says that he should not be compelled to pay for speech that is essentially the same as lobbying.


In the 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education case, the Supreme Court permitted the compulsory fees, judging that that non-union members covered by a collective bargaining agreement could not be “free riders” who benefit from union bargaining but pay nothing to support it. The court also accepted the argument that this would avoid labor strife. This decision was challenged in the 2016 case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. After the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court deadlocked 4-4 on whether to overturn the earlier decision approving mandatory union payments.


Unions are urging the court not to strip the power from government employee unions to obtain fees from non-members. They say that if the court does this, it will weaken these unions and the overall labor movement. On the other side, business groups and some workers say that union officials should not be able to force non-members to pay for endeavors that are little more than political activities.


A decision is expected in the late spring.


Do you think that non-members should be forced pay fees to government employee unions? Or do you think that it is only fair to make workers who benefit from union activities pay money to help fund them?


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