In February 2018 the US Supreme Court heard arguments in Janus vs. AFSCME, a case that challenges the ability of public sector unions to compel public employees to pay agency fees. While public sector employees currently have the ability to opt-out of paying that portion of union dues that are used for political activities, they still have to pay agency fees. This is based on the presumption that all members of a bargaining unit benefit from union negotiations with management, therefore all of them should pay those costs.
The Janus case argues that in the public sector, even these negotiations are inherently political and therefore it would be a violation of the right to free speech to compel any employee to help pay for them. The Supreme Court appears likely to agree. In an unrelated case also affecting unions, this week the US Supreme Court just ruled in favor of employers, affirming that “employers have the right to insist that labor disputes get resolved individually, rather than allowing workers to join together in class-action lawsuits.” The majority opinion was written by newly appointed Justice Gorsuch, reinforcing hopes that he will rule for the plaintiffs in the Janus case.
But will making agency fees optional result in dramatic change?
The potential is there for dramatic change, because as of 2017, 7.2 million government workers belong to a union. Their total membership nearly equals the total membership of private sector unions, 7.6 million, despite federal, state and local government workers only comprising about 17% of the U.S. workforce. In California, state and local government unions are estimated to collect and spend over $1.0 billion every year.