Last year, the Supreme Court was expected to overrule a crucial precedent supporting public sector unions, but the untimely death of Justice Anton Scalia complicated matters. Now, the case is returning — and a decision seems imminent.
In 2016, the Supreme Court considered the case of a nearly 40-year old precedent requiring public sector employees who don’t join the union to pay their “fair share” of collective bargaining costs. Justice Scalia died shortly after the Court heard oral argument in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. The Court ultimately issued a 4-4 decision which, practically speaking, kept Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977) on the books.
With Justice Neil Gorsuch now on the bench, the Supreme Court has agreed to try again to decide whether to overturn Abood in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. More than 20 states authorize fair share for public sector employees.
In Abood, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment does not prevent “agency shop” arrangements where public employees who do not join the union are still required to pay their “fair share” of union dues for collective-bargaining, contract administration, and grievance-adjustment. The rationale for an agency fee is that the union may not discriminate between members and nonmembers in performing these functions — so no free-riders are allowed.
In Harris v. Quinn (2014), the Supreme Court refused to extend Abood to Medicaid home health care providers because they aren’t “full-fledged” public employees. Justice Alito’s majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, was very critical of Abood discussing at length its “questionable analysis.” Justice Kagan’s dissent, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor, included a lengthy and vigorous defense of Abood.
In Harris, the Justices’ views of Abood were made readily apparent. So all eyes and ears will be on whether Justice Gorsuch will join the conservative wing of the Court and vote to overturn Abood.
Even in a term as interesting as this one promises to be Janus will be a big case. Agency fees are a foundational principle for public sector collective bargaining in the United States. Overturning it will represent a major change in the law, and will weaken public sector unions.
About the author: Lisa Soronen is the executive director of the State and Local Legal Center (SLLC), which files Supreme Court amicus curiae briefs on behalf of the Big Seven national organizations, including the National League of Cities, representing state and local governments. She is a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.