Janus v. AFSCME: an overview in Vermont

Ben Johnson

by Ben Johnson
Ben Johnson is a past president of AFT Vermont and Vermont AFL-CIO.

The Decision

The US Supreme Court held in its Janus v. AFSCME decision that unions in the public sector may no longer collect agency fees from non-members covered by union contracts.  The case and the ruling were anticipated with great fear and loathing inside the world of organized labor.  

Background

Prior to the decision, union contracts in the public sector were allowed to require non members to pay fees to the union as a condition of employment. Unions had come to rely upon their ability to collect these fees as a core element of their business model. In some cases, fees from non-members made up a majority of the revenue to local unions. There is no mystery in any organization resisting such a blow to its bottom line. That analysis does not even take into account the addition of the strongly held value inside organized labor that their approach is the right one and should be universally applied, whether individuals like it or not.

The arguments on either side came down to balancing the financial interests of the unions against the free speech rights of the individual. In our legal system, rights tend to trump other interests, and the Court decided for the individual.

The Implementation…

Prior to the decision there was much talk inside the union world about what exactly a finding against the union would mean and how unions would respond.

The central unanswered question was whether employers would immediately stop collecting fees. If so, the financial hit to the unions would be immediate. If, on the other hand, there were a widespread interpretation of the decision by employers and unions that they should re-open contracts to bargain over the effects of the decision, that might be to unions’ advantage in the short term, but then they might be required to refund the fees at some later time, creating an accounting nightmare.

…In Vermont

The major public sector employees affected by the decision in Vermont are:

  • State employees
  • Teachers and faculty at the Vermont State Colleges and UVM
  • Municipal employees

The way U.S. labor law is organized, each individual school system, city, or town tends to have its own collective bargaining agreement and union-employer relationship, although the vast majority of state employees are covered by the same contract. This means that these three distinct groups are covered by many scores of collective bargaining agreements across the state. The potential for a chaotic blend of implementations was high.

In fact, however, it seems that nearly all employers implemented the decision by ceasing agency fee collection very rapidly. Such an implementation likely meant a sharp but clean financial hit to the unions, with minimal risk of rebating funds.

The Aftermath

In the year or two prior to the Janus decision, unions were planning their responses. The level of inertia was very high, as would be expected in any group of organizations that had come to rely for decades on a business model founded upon collecting fees from customers who had no choice but to pay or leave their job.

The level of financial pressure the unions face without agency fees, though, will be too heavy to ignore. Something will change.  All public sector unions will have to prioritize their activities to survive on their existing levels of membership. Some will put time and energy into attracting more non members to join. Right now the jury is out on The question is which unions find new vitality in their need to attract members and which unions wither under the pressure. Right now the jury is out, but it will not be out for long.

Ben Johnson is a past president of AFT Vermont and Vermont AFL-CIO.


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