Supreme Court Upholds Right to Work Practice for Public Employees

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that public employee unions cannot automatically deduct money from the checks of bargaining unit employees who do not choose to become a union member.

The U.S. Supreme Court has issued a ruling that public-employee unions cannot automatically deduct fees from non-union workers. In a 5-4 split along ideological philosophies of the justices, the court ruled that the practice violates the First Amendment rights of non-members who disagree with positions adopted by unions. The ruling is relatively narrow.  It will not impact private sector employees or federal employees who may be represented by a union. The decision is at the bottom of this article for those who wish to read it.

The court’s decision is a financial and political loss to labor unions that have increased their membership and bank accounts in Illinois and other states by signing up hundreds of thousands of in-home care workers. Membership in these unions is also likely to drop as members will have little incentive to pay union dues if nonmembers don’t have to share the burden of the union’s expenses.

While the court’s decision concerns government workers, the case will not have an immediate impact on unions that represent federal employees. The 1978 Civil Service Reform Act already requires federal employee unions to represent all employees in a bargaining unit including those who are not paying dues to the union. In effect, federal employees cannot be required to pay union dues, even though they are represented by the unions. At the same time, all federal employees in a bargaining unit must comply with any collective bargaining agreement that the union has negotiated on their behalf, even if the bargaining unit employee may disagree with some provisions in the union contract.

The Civil Service Reform Act only applies to federal employees and does not apply to state or local government employees.

Writing the Supreme Court’s decision for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said home care workers “are different from full-fledged public employees” because they work primarily for their disabled or elderly customers and do not have most of the rights and benefits of state employees.

However, the decision is likely to spawn further challenges to laws that may require payment of union dues by non-members in other situations. The court noted that “[A]gency-fee provisions unquestionably impose a heavy burden on the First Amendment interests of objecting employees.” And, later in the decision, the court observed that “If we accepted Illinois’ argument, we would approve an unprecedented violation of the bedrock principle that, except perhaps in the rarest of circumstances, no person in this country may be compelled to subsidize speech by a third party that he or she does not wish to support.”

The majority decision in this recent case appears to question the underlying philosophy of a 1977 Supreme Court case in which the Court upheld the requirement that public school teachers can be required to pay fees unions even if they do not want to join the union because they did not agree with the ideological agenda of the union. The comments of the majority in this case may lead to more challenges in courts regarding the ability of public sector unions to collect money from public sector employees, such as teachers, to pursue their own ideological interests.

Harris v Quinn

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47