“Agency fees,” paid by non-union public workers whom unions represent in many states, hit the U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 26. But what was really at stake was the future of the union movement. “You’re basically arguing, ‘Do away with unions,’” Justice Sonia Sotomayor told the attorney for the union foes who brought the case, William Messenger of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Fund. As the justices heard the case inside the court’s white-marbled hall, unionists made themselves heard outside. More than 1,000 demonstrated for worker rights on the plaza outside the building. And they drew support from pro-choice, civil rights and community allies. A much smaller group supported the right to work crowd. The case is the most important labor case to hit the High Court in decades, said attorneys for both the union and the state of Illinois, whose law lets AFSCME collect the agency fees from the non-members.
“The state’s interest here is dealing with a single spokesman, and that they” – the union – “have a duty of representing everyone,” Illinois Solicitor General David Franklin told Justice Elena Kagan. That includes the non-members, he added. “A two-tiered workplace” where some people pay dues and the rest are free riders “would be corrosive to collaboration and cooperation,” he added. And, to keep their members, unions might be forced to become more militant, including demanding the right to strike. Making all state and local government workers free riders, “drains the union of resources that make it an equal partner” in bargaining with the state and local employers, Justice Ginsburg re-emphasized. The two silent GOP justices were Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, the court’s newest member, named by Trump, whose lower-court rulings and writings were consistently anti-worker. That lineup has led court specialists to predict unions will lose the case 5-4 on party lines. The court will decide Janus by late June.
- Mark Gruenberg, PAI Staff Writer; photos by Chris Garlock/Union City