The Supreme Court Building in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The Supreme Court Building in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Public employee unions assess damage of Supreme Court ruling

The justices ruled 5-4 that government workers cannot be forced to pay a fee for a union’s services.

EVERETT — The U.S. Supreme Court fractured the foundation of public employee unions Wednesday when it ruled government workers cannot be forced to pay a fee to labor unions representing them in negotiating salary and benefits and other matters.

Its 5-4 ruling erases a 1977 precedent that had enabled Washington and other states to require public employees, including teachers, to pay some amount of money for the services provided by the union, even if they chose not to join.

And the decision also puts the kibosh on a brand new state law in Washington to automatically enroll new government hires into a labor union unless the person took action to opt out. Democratic lawmakers pushed the legislation through in hopes of buffeting the state from an anti-union ruling.

Union leaders and their political allies blasted the decision from the court’s conservative majority as an attack on teachers, public safety personnel and government workers. Many of them downplayed the potential of the legal double-whammy to thin their ranks and shrink their coffers.

“In some ways the Janus decision has been a clarion call for ‘Let’s organize’,” said Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council. Anti-labor forces “thought the court decision was going to silence us. It’s doing just the opposite. We’re going to grow.”

Meanwhile, at the offices of the Freedom Foundation, the stated mission is “to reverse the stranglehold public-sector unions have on our government.” The group has begun a campaign to inform government workers they will be able to stop paying the so-called fair share fees without risk of losing their job or representation.

“We intend to do a full amount of education of public employees,” said Max Nielsen, director of labor policy for the nonprofit think tank. “It starts now. I don’t think unions are going to be disappearing as a result of the decision, but there will be fewer public employees who will choose to support the union now that it is not compulsory.”

The case, Janus vs. AFSCME, centered on the constitutionality of requiring employees who choose not to join a union to nonetheless be forced to pay a fee for representation. In Illinois, where the case was originally filed, the money is automatically deducted from paychecks.

Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, said no money can be taken without the workers’ agreement.

”The First Amendment is violated when money is taken from non-consenting employees for a public-sector union; employees must choose to support the union before anything is taken from them,” he wrote.

And, Alito rejected the union’s concern about “free riders” enjoying the benefits without shouldering the costs.

“States can avoid free riders through less restrictive means,” he wrote.

On Wednesday in Everett, Tim Brittell, president of the Northshore Education Association, likened the prevailing side in the case to someone going to a grocery store checkout line with a cart full of items, then walking out without paying.

“That’s what these people expect. They expect to have something handed to them for free.”

He said they’re not forcing any political viewpoint on anyone.

“I was raised that if you get something, that you pay for it,” he said. “You should not get my representation, my bargaining support —everything else— for free.”

The Washington Federation of State Employees will consider revising its approach to nonmembers, said Greg Devereux, the union’s executive director. The union represents roughly 44,000 workers, of which he estimated 10 percent are not members and have been paying agency fees.

Under the decision, the agency fee goes away. The union could devise a new partial membership fee in its stead and then ask nonmembers if they are willing to pay it, he said.

“The court didn’t outlaw that,” he said.

Devereux said he does not expect many people will quit the union because of Janus. Maybe just the opposite, as 35 people joined last week, he noted.

“People understand they need a collective voice,” he said. “You can’t bargain by yourself.”

The financial impact on teachers unions will vary.

Jared Kink, president of the Everett Education Association which represents 1,300 employees, said he didn’t anticipate any negative effects rippling through the ranks. He said the new rules will make the line clearer between members and nonmembers.

“For us in Everett at least it’s a non-event,” he said. “I really don’t see anything changing.”

In a joint statement, Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson, both Democrats, said the ruling compromises the ability of public employees to organize and collectively bargain on wages and working conditions.

And they warned the court’s conservative majority and anti-labor forces behind the case “are taking us backward to a time when workers had to resort to enormously disruptive strikes and walk-outs in order to make their voices heard.”

Erin Shannon, director of the Center for Worker Rights for the pro-business Washington Policy Center, said the goal of the lawsuit “was never to weaken unions in our opinion. It was to strengthen worker rights.

“And it’s a great day for worker rights,” she said. “No worker can be forced to pay the union even one penny in order to get and keep a job in the public sector.”

The full decision and dissent are available at www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/opinions.aspx.

Herald writer Noah Haglund and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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