Will the New Supreme Court Decision Impact Federal Employees?

What impact will there be on federal employees from the Supreme Court decision that says government employees can no longer be forced to pay fees to a union?

The US Supreme Court has issued a decision (Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, et al.) concerning the payment of fees to a union that represents employees in state and local governments. Several readers have previously inquired (perhaps anticipating the way the Court has now ruled) as to how a decision in this case would impact the federal workforce.

Ruling of the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court’s decision issued on June 27, 2018 overturns a 1977 case (Abood v. Detroit Board of Education). In this new decision, the Court held public-employee contracts requiring workers to pay union dues is no longer the law of the land.

Unions, including federal employee unions, are not going to be happy with the Court’s decision. The decison will have significant ramifications.

In effect, it means a number of unions ranging from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the National Education Association will lose a lot of money. The ramifications are that these unions, which have provided money, resources and campaign workers that almost always support Democrats running for office, will no longer have the same monetary resources available.

The ruling impacts about five million employees in 24 states and the District of Columbia.

This is the gist of how the Supreme Court viewed this case:

States and public-sector unions may no longer extract agency fees from nonconsenting employees. The First Amendment is violated when money is taken from nonconsenting employees for a public-sector union; employees must choose to support the union before anything is taken from them. Accordingly, neither an agency fee nor any other form of payment to a public-sector union may be deducted from an employee, nor may any other attempt be made to collect such a payment, unless the employee affirmatively consents to pay.

What About Federal Employees?

Federal employees will not be impacted.

In the federal government, employees cannot be required to pay dues or fees to a union if they do not consent to do so.

The same model is also used in most states in our country. But, in 24 states and the District of Columbia, primarily in liberal-leaning areas such as the Northeast and the Pacific Coast,  government agencies agreed to “union-security agreements”. These agreements require employees to join the union or pay a fee for services provided by a union. These core services include negotiating labor agreements and enforcing these agreements through a negotiated grievance procedure or other legal means such as filing an unfair labor practice.

Rationale for Requiring Payment of Dues or Fees to a Union

Here is how the labor relations system works.

When an election is held in an agency to determine whether a union (and which union) will represent employees, the winner is determined by a majority of those voting in the election. In some agencies, this decision ends up being made by a small number of employees.

How a Winner is Determined in a Union Representation Election

For example, if there are 500 employees in a federal government bargaining unit, and 100 employees (or fewer) vote in the election, the outcome is determined by a majority vote. In other words, if 51 or more employees vote for a union, that union represents everyone in the bargaining unit.

This means that all employees are subject to the requirements of any collective bargaining agreement that is negotiated and the union speaks for all employees in the unit—including for employees who did not vote in the election or who may have voted against the union.

“Fair-Share” Fees

At the same time, this means the union has an obligation to represent all bargaining unit employees—including those who did not vote or voted against the union.

“Union-security agreements” are not allowed in the federal government. Even if a union wins in an election, employees do not have to join the union (pay dues) or pay a fee to the union for its services.

Unions refer to these charges as “fair-share fees,” argue they are necessary to prevent “free riders”—employees who are receive the benefits and job security a union contract may offer but do not pay any money for these benefits.

Union Reaction to Supreme Court Decision

In a press release issued shortly after the Supreme Court’s decision, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) wrote a press release asking federal employees to sign up for dues withholding in their agencies.

The argument from AFGE is the same as the argument used by state and local unions who, for the past 40 years, have had the benefit of substantial income as a result of employees being required to pay money to a union if they wanted to remain employed by the organization:

When union members pay to negotiate a contract for their workplace, everyone who’s covered by that contract takes home higher pay and benefits, has greater job security, enjoys improved health and safety standards, and gets help in settling workplace disputes.

If you’re covered by the union contract but you don’t belong to the union, it’s time to join your union and pay for the benefits you receive – because those benefits could vanish tomorrow unless workers take a stand and fight for their rights at the worksite.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that federal employees are not directly impacted by this new decision by the Supreme Court. Federal employees were, and still are, free to join a union and pay dues if they wish to do so. They do not have to join or pay dues if they do not wish to do so.

The bigger impact will be felt at the national level. Money and services in support of Democrats running for elected office has been substantial. The flow of money into union treasuries where unions represent employees in state or local governments with a “union security agreement” will decrease as the impact of this decision ripples through our government system. This source of funds for candidates will also decrease.

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