It Sure Seems Like the Supreme Court Is Going to Decimate Public Unions

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The Supreme Court on Monday took the first steps in what many observers believe will amount to the decimation of public sector unions.

The Court heard arguments in Janus v AFSCME Council 31, a case that revolves around whether non-union members must pay what are known as “fair share” or “agency” fees to unions that represent them in collective bargaining negotiations. In Janus, Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services employee Mark Janus sued his local chapter of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

As NBC News notes, the non-union “fair share” employees usually sign a letter opting out of the union’s political funding, and whatever money the union spends for political purposes is then refunded back. It’s a precedent, the union argues, that goes back to the 1976 case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which said that while non-members of public sector unions don’t have to pay for political lobbying, they still must still pay a fee to the union, since those employees would benefit from that union’s contract negotiation. Janus, however, insists that because AFSCME’s labor negotiations are with the government, all the fees he pays to the union amount to political lobbying—lobbying, he insists, that abridges his First Amendment rights.


The elimination of such fees has long been a right-wing fantasy. Getting rid of them would severely hobble a union’s ability to represent and defend workers—both members and non-members. What’s more, those unions have traditionally been a major tentpole in the Democratic Party structure.

Which brings us to Monday’s hearing.

According to observers inside the chambers, the case is likely going to come down to a 5–4 vote in favor of Janus, with Justices Kennedy and Gorsuch the key votes.


“What we are talking about here,” Kennedy said at one point, “is compelled justification and compelled subsidization of a private party, a private party that expresses political views constantly.” Later, when an attorney for the union, confirmed that should he lose this case, unions as a whole will be disadvantaged moving forward, Kennedy retorted, “Isn’t that the end of this case?”


Let’s be clear about what’s happening here: The Republican effort to obstruct President Obama from naming a Supreme Court nominee—only to clear a path for President Trump to confirm Neil Gorsuch—is about to begin paying off major dividends to the major right-wing funders who’ve bankrolled an ongoing effort to destroy public labor unions. Weaker unions means weaker resistance to laws that fuck over workers and more money in the pockets of their bosses.

The court isn’t expected to rule on Janus until sometime this spring. But from the looks of it, when that happens it’ll be a disaster for labor—and laborers—everywhere.

Senior writer. When in doubt he'll have the soup.

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