SCOTUS Case Bad News for VT Government Unions

by David Flemming

The Supreme Court decided to hear a case, Janus v. AFSCME, about whether or not government employees can be forced to pay “agency fees” (payments in lieu of dues) to unions of which they are not members. In the 1977 Supreme Court Case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the Court decided that government unions would be allowed to collect “agency fees” from non-union government employees in order to pay for collective bargaining. If the Court rules in favor of Janus, 5 million government workers (a number of whom Vermont teachers and state employees) would be able to opt out of union fees and still keep their jobs.

A little background… Mark Janus was a child-support specialist at the Illinois Department of Healthcare Services. When a federal judge told Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner that Rauner could not bring forth a lawsuit challenging agency fees on behalf of Illinois government employees, Janus decided to step in as plaintiff in the case. A federal judge ruled against Janus, invoking Abood in the decision. But Janus appealed to the Supreme Court, and on Thursday, the Court agreed to hear his case.

Just two years ago, a group of California teachers took a similar case to the Supreme Court, and it looked like they would prevail. But after Justice Antonin Scalia died in February 2016, the court split 4-4, leaving the Abood decision in place. Recently appointed Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch had been compared to Scalia, making it likely that he will side with Janus and cast the deciding vote in favor of the public sector employees.

The Janus case has the potential to significantly impact Vermont. In 2013, Governor Peter Shumlin signed off on, in what was largely seen as a payoff to the politically powerful teachers union, a bill imposing mandatory agency fees on 2,600 Vermont government employees who were not members of a union. Most of these employees were low-wage support staff who could ill afford the financial hit. But, for the past 4 years, they have been forced to pay 85% of union dues and are not even given a vote on union matters.

The VTNEA planned to use that 2013 law in a cynical scheme to extract agency fees from non-union childcare workers, who were mostly self-employed small business people, before another Supreme Court case, Harris v. Quinn (2013), put an end to it. Former Vermont Union Leader Ben Johnson describes this diabolical plan in his remarkable essay, Forced Dues Dooms Big Labor: “We knew we would never see more than probably 10-20% of them (childcare providers) sign up as members. They were spread across the state, house by house… We would never be able to really create an organization out of that. If it were going to work, we would need agency fees baked in.”

This should be a comforting “light at the end of the tunnel” for Vermont’s teachers and government employees. Should the Supreme Court rule broadly in Mr. Janus’ favor, Vermont’s 2013 law would become null and void, giving them the freedom to decide for themselves if paying dues to a union is worth it or not.

- David Flemming is a policy analyst for the Ethan Allen Institute

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Jim Bulmer September 30, 2017 at 12:01 am

Forced to join a union? What ever happened to freedom of choice? Happily, the Supreme Court will settle that issue.

Reply

Jeanne Vittorioso September 30, 2017 at 2:23 pm

If you don’t belong to a group, you don’t pay fees. If you don’t belong to a union, you don’t pay fees. No one should be forced to pay for something they don’t directly benefit from.

Reply

c proton October 1, 2017 at 3:37 pm

Agree that non-union members should not pay fees, as long as they are not covered by the collective bargaining agreement. No free riders.

Reply

Rob October 2, 2017 at 1:21 am

That’s a catch 22, C. They are forced into the collective bargaining agreement by the union. The idea that the union should not have to represent non members for purposes of collective bargaining has been offered. The union opposes it. The union wants a monopoly on contract negotiations.

Reply

Doug Richmond October 2, 2017 at 6:27 pm

Why should any employer, gov’t included be required to collect dues for their adversary?

Just let the employees to who CHOOSE to be mambers pay their dues directly.

They might realize just how espensive their Union actually is

85% is baloney anyway. Seems that that is about the amount the unions spend to elect Dem/Prog candidates.

Reply

Curtis Hier October 3, 2017 at 9:53 pm

Collective bargaining does not require a dedication of 85 percent of the dues. I’d like to get a retroactive refund of my agency fees.

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