Supreme Court ruling deals blow to public unions

The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that nonmembers of public sector unions are not required to pay the cost of collective bargaining, a decision that could have significant implications for workers at public health systems. 

In a 5-4 ruling (PDF), which was written by Justice Samuel Alito, the court determined that collecting the fees from nonmembers constituted a violation of their First Amendment rights. 

"We conclude that this arrangement violates the free speech rights of nonmembers by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern," Alito wrote.

The case was filed by Mark Janus, a child support enforcement worker in Illinois, against the American Federal State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union, and he argued that the $45 monthly fee to the union violated his free speech rights as he disagreed with the union's collective bargaining tactics. 

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Workers in the public sector—including public health systems—are far more likely to be unionized than those in the private sector, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. Overall, close to 1.5 million healthcare workers are in a union. 

The two largest public health systems in the country, NYC Health + Hospitals and the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, filed an amicus brief (PDF) in the case earlier this year, arguing in favor of allowing unions to continue collecting the fees.  

The two systems were joined by the Service Employees International Union in the brief.

"Given that significant evidence shows unionized environments can be productive, it is completely rational for public implement best practices for making collective bargaining successful," the groups wrote, "and allowing unions to collect fair share fees is one policy that has been shown over many years to encourage productive collective bargaining." 

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In a joint statement, AFSCME, SEIU, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers said the Supreme Court's ruling was a decision "against working people and in favor of billionaires and corporate interests." 

"Public service workers—teachers, social workers, firefighters, 911 operators—are more determined than ever to stick together in their unions," the groups said. "Unions remain the most effective vehicle for the power in numbers working people need to secure their rights and freedoms, and provide a pathway to the middle class."