The U.S. Supreme Court will again hear a case that could ultimately bring right to work to all public sector workers in the country. It’s an important suit that has First Amendment ramifications, as well as the potential to bring taxpayers relief.
The case challenges a 1977 High Court ruling out of Detroit that maintained unions could collect fees from workers, even if they opted out of the union. These mandatory agency fees are supposed to cover the costs of bargaining and other work the union does on workers’ behalf.
The Supreme Court heard a similar case last term from teachers in California, but following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the justices deadlocked 4-4.
Mark Janus, an Illinois state employee, wants the court to revisit the issue and many predict new Justice Neil Gorsuch will tip the balance in favor of Janus.
In last year’s case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, nine teachers took issue with the $650 in annual fees they had to pay to stay employed. The teachers claimed the fees were unfair and violated their First Amendment rights since collective bargaining is inherently political. In addition, they believed that it’s hard to differentiate between money the union spends on contracts and a union’s political activities.
Janus is making a similar argument.
If this case does in fact do away with agency fees, then all states — including big population states like California, New York and Ohio — will in effect become right to work for those in the public sector. Around the country, 7.1 million public sector employees belonged to a union in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The case would have less impact on Michigan and the other 26 states with active right-to-work laws. But since this state’s law excluded police and fire unions, those employees could be impacted if agency fees are overturned.
Eighteen state attorneys general have signed an amicus brief by the Michigan Attorney General’s Office, arguing this is a matter of public concern and citing Detroit’s bankruptcy as rationale for why it’s essential to get public worker benefits under control.
They wrote: “It is time to abandon the meaningless distinction between collective bargaining and other political activity. In the public sector, core collective bargaining topics such as wages, pensions and benefits inherently implicate public policy, and in ways that matter ... In the public sector, it is taxpayers, not business owners and consumers, who foot the bill — and the bill is often steep.”
Powerful unions nationwide have negotiated contracts that have put taxpayers on the hook for benefits most workers don’t enjoy in the private sector.
For example, 82 percent of state and local governments offer defined-benefit pension plans to employees; just 7 percent of private-sector employees have this perk. That’s had a direct impact in Michigan, where unfunded teacher pension liabilities have grown to nearly $30 billion, cutting into school budgets and demanding more help from the state. And local governments are struggling with crushing retirement debt, too.
This state’s largest public union, the Michigan Education Association, has lost some members and their dues since the 2012 right-to-work law passed. Dues have fallen to $49 million in 2016 from $61 million in 2012. Yet there are still more than 90,000 active members.
Unions aren’t going anywhere, but the Supreme Court should uphold the rights of public workers who don’t want to be forced to pay for a service and speech they don’t support.