In its 5-4 decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the Supreme Court on Wednesday declared unconstitutional laws that require public employees to pay “agency fees” to unions that they refuse to join. The court’s ruling, will not, as critics fear, deliver a “death blow” to unions. But it will restore to thousands of public employees the right to decide which political causes to support with their money.
The court’s decision will weaken but not destroy government unions. One study estimates that the state and local public sector union membership rate in collective bargaining states, 53.7 percent, will fall by 8.2 percentage points. The experience of states that have recently passed right-to-work laws suggests that some public unions may lose 10 percent to 30 percent of their memberships. Such declines imply losses of tens of millions of dollars in dues money. State and local government unions will come to resemble unions in the federal government, where agency fees are prohibited.
Major organizing efforts to stave off membership losses have been underway since 2014. Across the country, unions have been surveying their members to find out their priorities and asking employees to sign new union cards. Even with reduced memberships, public unions will remain potent forces in many states.
Nonetheless, taking public unions down a peg has another important effect: It will rebalance the playing field in states where the power of unions make it impossible for governments to address the rising costs of pensions and retiree health care, which are crowding out other spending. Oregon, for example, has $25 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, but the public employees’ union has adamantly opposed increasing members’ contributions.At LAT, John Myers notes that California unions have long been preparing for this decision.
In the late summer of 2015, hours before the Legislature adjourned for the year, labor leaders pushed for a bill to give public-sector unions a special meeting with new employees to promote the benefits of union membership. The bill failed that time, but the effort returned in 2017 as an item tucked into the state budget. The modified plan added a union presentation to the agenda for new employee orientations.
“The orientation will provide new employees with a clear understanding of all the benefits afforded to them, as well as what services their union provides them,” Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove) said during legislative debate last June.
Gov. Jerry Brown signed that bill and another 2017 law, one that imposes restrictions on government employers who might discuss with employees the pros — or cons — of union membership.