Our editorial: High Court stands for workers' freedoms

The Detroit News

Millions of public sector workers around the country -- and the taxpayers who cover their paychecks -- should celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Wednesday. In ruling that mandatory fees to unions are unconstitutional, the court made a strong stand for freedom of speech and association.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote the 5-4 opinion, saying these forced union fees violate the First Amendment rights of workers "by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern."

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch joined the majority. It was also an important final vote by Kennedy, who has served as a swing vote on the court for decades but who has also been a steadfast advocate of free speech. He announced his retirement shortly after the decision.  

The ruling overturns 41-year-old precedent from a case out of Detroit, in which the Supreme Court upheld agency fees.

In right-to-work states, unions can’t mandate dues or fees as a condition of employment. But they can in other states.

More than half the states, including Michigan, are already right to work, so the decision won’t have much impact here, but it will affect police and fire unions, which were exempt from the state’s 2012 right-to-work law.

The ruling will have a significant impact in non right-to-work states, effectively making them right to work for all public-sector workers.

With all the hand-wringing by union supporters, you’d think the Janus v. AFSCME decision dealt a fatal blow to public sector unions. Mark Janus, an Illinois state employee, brought the case against his union.

“Today’s 5-4 ruling by the Supreme Court should serve as a wake-up call to every working family in Michigan that our current leaders in Lansing and Washington aren’t on our side,” said Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer in a statement.

The court simply said that mandating agency fees to cover the cost of contract negotiations and other union business fundamentally goes against First Amendment protections. Unions designed agency fees for those workers who wanted out of a union or didn’t want to support a union’s political activities with their full dues.

But agency fees are often only slightly less than dues, so it’s unrealistic to think that the fees aren’t contributing to political speech that may offend some workers. Plus, other union members like Janus have argued they believe union bargaining itself is inherently political.

The union membership rate of government workers is five times higher than for private sector employees: 34 percent to 6.5 percent. Public sector workers are also much more likely to have costly pensions than private workers.

People gather at the Supreme Court, Monday, June 25, 2018, awaiting a decision in an Illinois union dues case, Janus vs. AFSCME, in Washington.  The Supreme Court says government workers can't be forced to contribute to labor unions that represent them in collective bargaining, dealing a serious financial blow to organized labor.

Justice Elena Kagan in her dissent focused on the negative "large-scale consequences" for unions.

In Michigan, unions have felt a sting -- but they are definitely surviving. The Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has lost members and their dues. Since 2012, dues fell to $48 million in 2017 from $62 million in 2012. Yet the union still serves more than 87,000 active members.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy had anticipated a decision in favor of Janus, and it has created a My Pay My Say campaign to help workers around the country exercise their new rights. Because, as was the case in Michigan, unions don’t let their members and their fees go easily.

This case was about protecting the First Amendment rights of all citizens, including union members. And the Supreme Court delivered a win for government workers -- and for freedom.