Blockbuster Union Fees Issue Returns to Supreme Court

Author: David B. Weisenfeld, XpertHR Legal Editor

October 2, 2017

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a landmark case involving the dues unions collect to support their collective bargaining efforts. The case affects millions of teachers and other public school employees and could potentially deal a significant setback to unions.

At stake in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is whether unions can compel nonmembers to pay dues. Illinois state employee Mark Janus claims he should not be forced to pay these dues to a union he does not support.

The issue is not a new one for the nation's highest court. In early 2016, the justices heard a similar case in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. During the oral arguments, a slim majority of justices appeared ready to side with a group of school teachers who claimed the teachers' union was violating their free speech rights by compelling them to pay union dues.

But the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, a likely voter for the objecting teachers, dramatically changed the result and led to a 4-4 tie that left a lower court ruling for the union intact. Now that the Court again has a full complement of nine members, it has decided to resolve this closely watched issue.

While 28 states have "right to work" laws that forbid unions from requiring employees to join or support them, the case has implications for unions in the other 22 states that do not have such measures, including:

  • California;
  • Illinois;
  • New Jersey;
  • New York;
  • Ohio; and
  • Pennsylvania.

A ruling in favor of the objecting employee could make it much more difficult for unions in those states to raise money and weaken their influence. Unions have been fighting for years to preserve their ability to collect these dues, or agency fees as they are known.

The Supreme Court is expected to hear the Janus case in early 2018, with a decision likely before the end of its term next June.