In a narrow 5-4 decision today, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Illinois' Republican governor Bruce Rauner, who challenged public unions' rights to collect fees from non-members to cover the costs of collective bargaining.
The court's decision in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 could incentivize some of the more than 5 million public employee union members across the country, including more than 300,000 in Ohio, to cease paying their membership dues.
Ohio is one of 22 states where laws require non-union members to pay a fee if they choose not to join a union but benefit from its collective bargaining gains. Today's Supreme Court decision, however, effectively guts those laws, meaning employees could choose to "free ride" — benefiting from the work unions do without paying dues to support them.
"We recognize that the loss of payments from non-members may cause unions to experience unpleasant transition costs in the short term and may require unions to make adjustments in order to attract and retain members," Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority decision.
"But we must weigh these disadvantages against the considerable windfall that unions have received," he continued, referencing a past decision made by the court in 1977 ruling that stated unions could collect dues from non-members in a workplace.
Supporters of the so-called "fair share" provisions say that they keep non-union employees from benefiting from the gains unions achieve without contributing to them. But proponents of today's decision say it is a violation of an employee's First Amendment rights to compel an employee to pay union dues if they don't want to join a union, since those unions often engage in political activities. Illinois Gov. Rauner, who brought the challenge, has also said the state needs to renegotiate its public employee contracts to mitigate state budget problems.
Unions use dues to cover the costs of collective bargaining, political organizing and other activities. The decision could have big political implications — many public sector unions are big donors to the Democratic Party and Democratic candidates.
The Ohio Democratic Party blasted today's Supreme Court's decision.
“For years right-wing extremists and deep-pocketed donors have been systematically attacking workers’ rights through the courts and in state legislatures across the country," party chair David Pepper said in a statement. "Today’s 5-4 decision in the Janus case is just the latest example of how millionaires and corporate special interests have tried to rig the economy and pit workers against one another."
It's not the first time Ohio's public employee unions have faced big challenges. In 2011, Ohio's conservative lawmakers and Ohio Gov. John Kasich ushered in strict new limitations on public unions' ability to engage in collective bargaining, but that law was later handily repealed by a voter referendum. Conservatives backing that law said it would help the state manage employment costs.