Photo: Jacquelyn Martin (AP)

The Supreme Court dealt a devastating blow to public sector unions on Wednesday, ruling that non-union members are exempt from paying what’s known as “fair share” dues despite their presumed benefit from the union’s collective bargaining on their behalf. In doing so, the court has helped fulfill a long-running conservative dream and decimated one of the major tentpoles of the Democratic Party.

“This arrangement violates the free speech rights of nonmembers by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the court’s majority opinion.

By a vote of 5–4 in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, the court’s conservative majority ruled in favor of Mark Janus, a nonunion employee of the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services who sued his local chapter of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees over his fair share dues.

Ordinarily, non-union members need simply to sign a letter opting them out of the local union’s political lobbying, and are reimbursed the appropriate amount of money. Janus, however, alleged that since he worked for a public sector union whose negotiations were exclusively with a government entity, all his fair share dues amounted to lobbying, and were therefore in violation of his First Amendment rights.

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The court, evidently, agreed.

In his opinion, Justice Samuel Alito essentially accused public sector unions of having benefitted for decades from an illegal precedent:

We recognize that the loss of payments from nonmembers may cause unions to experience unpleasant transition costs in the short term, and may require unions to make adjustments in order to attract and retain members. But we must weigh these disadvantages against the considerable windfall that unions have received under Abood for the past 41 years. It is hard to estimate how many billions of dollars have been taken from nonmembers and transferred to public-sector unions in violation of the First Amendment. Those unconstitutional exactions cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely.

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Crushing public sector unions has long been a goal of right wing politicians and their funders, who see them as impeding legislation that would benefit corporate bosses.

In her dissent, Justice Elena Kagan acknowledged both the ruling’s immediate effect, and the near certainty of it leading to a series of unexpected outcomes:

Its decision will have large-scale consequences. Public employee unions will lose a secure source of financial support. State and local governments that thought fair-share provisions furthered their interests will need to find new ways of managing their workforces. Across the country, the relationships of public employees and employers will alter in both predictable and wholly unexpected ways.

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Kagan also accused the majority of overturning decades of precedent “because it wanted to,” not because there was an urgent legal issue at hand:

Wednesday’s ruling was largely foreshadowed this past February, when the court presided over a testy hearing during which Justice Anthony Kennedy responded to a union lawyer’s prediction that his clients would be disadvantaged by the ruling by simply retorting, “Isn’t that the end of this case?”

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Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO—America’s largest union federation, which counts AFSCME as a member—issued a defiant statement after the ruling, saying unions have “never depended on any politician or judge to decide our fate.” (The Writer’s Guild of America East union, which represents Splinter, is affiliated to the AFL-CIO.)

AFSCME president Lee Saunders also responded to the ruling, saying in part:

AFSCME members don’t do this work to get rich. They do it because it’s a calling—and for that service, they deserve respect. They deserve the same freedoms as the CEOs and billionaires who continue to rig the rules against everyone else.

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Update, 10:25 a.m.: This story has been updated to include quotes from the Janus ruling as well as union reactions.