White House urges Supreme Court to rule against forcing employees to pay public unions

The Trump administration urged the Supreme Court yesterday to rule against public sector unions in a case involving whether government employees can be forced to financially support labor groups.

In a friend of the court brief for the case Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the White House argued that the practice violated individual union members’ First Amendment rights and should be abolished.

The case asks whether Mark Janus, an Illinois state government employee, can be forced to regularly pay a “security fee” to his workplace’s union as a condition of employment. The outcome is of major significance to the labor movement, about half of which — an estimated seven million people — works in a public sector job. Undermining the precedent the allows unions to demand regular payment from those workers could be a crippling financial blow.

In the brief filed late Wednesday by Solicitor General Noel Francisco, the administration contended that the court’s 1977 precedent, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which allowed the payments, was wrongly decided and should be cast aside. The administration argues that because the unions negotiate payments with governments over issues involving budgets and size of government, they by definition involve political viewpoints and therefore workers can be forced to subsidize views they disagree with.

“To compel a public employee to subsidize his union’s bargaining position on these questions is to force him to support private political and ideological viewpoints with which he may strongly disagree,” the brief stated.

The administration argues that this wouldn’t prevent public sector unions from existing, but they would have to be purely voluntary institutions. “Public employees’ strong interest in freedom of speech on such matters outweighs the government’s interest in authorizing public-sector unions to collect agency fees that they do not need to fulfill their responsibilities.”

Security fees are a common provision in public sector union contracts. Unions such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees count on those fees. An internal survey the union did in 2015 found that only a third of their members would voluntarily pay dues, and half of its membership couldn’t be counted upon to do that. A nontrivial minority of 15 percent would be certain to opt-out of paying dues.

Unions argue that they are owed the fees to compensate for their collective bargaining on behalf of the workers. Union leaders have denounced the case as an attack on unions and are dreading the outcome of the case. “The entire public sector could be under right to work by next spring thanks to the Supreme Court,” AFSCME President Lee Saunders said.

Last session, the justices appeared to be on the verge of overturning Abood in a case called Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, but Justice Antonin Scalia’s death resulted in a 4-4 deadlock.