The only surprise in the Supreme Court's decision about whether state employees should have to pay fair share fees to the union that represents them is how long it took for the court to release its ruling.
No one is shocked that the court ruled 5-4 that the fair share practice is unconstitutional, with the majority saying it is a violation of workers' free speech promised in the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment. The surprise was that it took the court until the last day of its summer session to release the widely expected ruling that kept interested parties on pins and needles most of June. And there are plenty of interested parties.
The case involved state employee Mark Janus, a Springfield resident who works as a child support specialist for the Department of Healthcare and Family Services. The job is a union position represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31. Like all state employees in a union job who are not a member of the union, he was required to pay 78 percent of full union dues as fair share fees. The money was used by AFSCME to cover costs in negotiating contracts on behalf of all workers in union jobs.
The fees could not be used for political activities by AFSCME but Janus argued that anything the union did was inherently political — which his legal team contended meant that, as a condition of his employment, he could be required to support activities that he may not endorse. AFSCME disagreed, saying that the fees only offset the costs of representing all union job employees — members or not — in contract negotiations and other labor issues.
Last week's ruling will bring immediate changes to Illinois as Gov. Bruce Rauner (who initiated the lawsuit challenging fair share fees before it was ruled he didn't have standing to bring the lawsuit) said the state will stop withholding fair share fees from non-union member paychecks. Some will stop paying because they truly believe it violates their First Amendment rights; others might do so for financial reasons.
We're not here to support or bemoan the court's ruling. It's now the law and it must be followed. But we're not convinced the ruling is going to be the disaster some prognosticators have predicted for union membership and the Democratic candidates that labor tends to support politically. Nor are we sure will it be the great victory for taxpayers claimed by Rauner and the conservative groups that pushed this case to the country's highest court.
This will only be a gut-punch to organized labor — and the causes they support — if unions allow it to be. Labor leaders should view it as an opportunity to prove their worth. If union workers believe their job is better — whether that be the pay they receive or conditions they work in — because of the union, then employees will stay or become a member. The union must prove at the bargaining table that it is worthy of such support.
And their voice can still resonate in politics if they can articulate how through their work they benefit not just their members, but all of the state's residents. The unfunded pension liability is at least $130 billion. That needs a solution that is fair to the employees who earned those benefits and the taxpayers who have to foot the bill. Leaders on that issue have been few and far between. The unions can support candidates who are serious about finding solutions or lead the way themselves.
The (Springfield, Illinois) State Journal-Register