Workforce

Public employee unions in the crosshairs of Supreme Court case

US Supreme Court shutterstock photo ID: 376063027 By Tinnaporn Sathapornnanont 

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Feb. 26 in a case that could have major ramifications on the membership and power of government employee unions.

Mark Janus, an Illinois government employee, is suing the union that represents him — but of which he is not a member -- on the grounds that deductions from his paycheck go to fund activities for views he may not share.

Janus's lawyers argued those contributions are a violation of the First Amendment because, even though those fees aren't allowed to be used for political purposes, the union's actions are inherently political. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit ruled against Janus.

The case, Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipality Employees, is the third time in recent years that the high court has sought to reexamine union fees charged to nonmembers who work on union contracts. The practice was permitted under a 1977 case, but that precedent is at risk of being overturned.

Jeff Neal, former chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and a 33-year veteran of the federal workforce, said that when it comes to the future clout of government employee unions, "it's going to be a pretty consequential decision one way or the other."

Neal noted the decision in the Janus case is "more of a state and local issue than a federal issue," because the fees at issue here aren't paid by unionized feds.

National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon told FCW in an emailed statement that an adverse ruling for AFSCME "could weaken unions and result in fewer protections for our nation's state and local government employees."

Solicitor General Noel Francisco, arguing on behalf of Janus, said in a friend of the court brief that federal union membership is just fine without fees similar to those required by some state and local unions.

"Despite the absence of agency fees, nearly a million federal employees -- more than 27 percent of the federal workforce -- are union members," wrote Francisco.

A group of American Federation of Government Employees members rallied outside the Supreme Court building while the case was being argued.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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