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Supreme Court deals big setback to labor unions

By MARK SHERMAN
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that government workers can’t be forced to contribute to labor unions that represent them in collective bargaining, dealing a serious blow to organized labor.

The justices are scrapping a 41-year-old decision that had allowed states to require public employees to pay some fees to unions that represent them, even if the workers chose not to join.

The 5-4 decision fulfills a longtime wish of conservatives to get rid of the so-called fair-share fees that non-members pay to unions in roughly two dozen states. The court ruled that the laws violate the First Amendment by compelling workers to support unions they may disagree with.

“States and public-sector unions may no longer extract agency fees from nonconsenting employees,” Justice Samuel Alito said in his majority opinion for the court’s five conservative justices.

President Donald Trump weighed in minutes after the decision was handed down, while Alito still was reading a summary of it from the bench.

“Big loss for the coffers of the Democrats!” Trump said in a tweet.

In dissent, Justice Elena Kagan wrote of the decision’s likely consequences.

“There is no sugarcoating today’s opinion. The majority overthrows a decision entrenched in this Nation’s law – and its economic life – for over 40 years. As a result, it prevents the American people, acting through their state and local officials, from making important choices about workplace governance. And it does so by weaponizing the First Amendment, in a way that unleashes judges, now and in the future, to intervene in economic and regulatory policy.”

The court’s three other liberal justices joined the dissent.

The last time the court considered the issue in 2016, following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, it split 4-4. Organized labor is a big supporter of Democratic candidates and interests. Last year, unions strongly opposed Justice Neil Gorsuch’s nomination by Trump.

Gorsuch was in the majority on Wednesday.

The unions say the outcome could affect more than 5 million government workers in about two dozen states and the District of Columbia.

This latest, which involved Mark Janus, a government employee for the state of Illinois, was similar in many ways to the one the justices took up in 2016. Two years ago, the court had appeared ready to overrule a decision from 1997 serving as the legal foundation for the fair-share fees. But Scalia’s death left a tie vote on the court, and a lower court’s ruling in favor of the fees remained in place.

The unions argued that so-called fair-share fees pay for collective bargaining and other work the union does on behalf of all employees, not just its members. More than half of the states already have right-to-work laws banning mandatory fees, but most members of public-employee unions are concentrated in states that don’t, including California, New York, and Illinois.

Labor leaders fear the decision that it will only be non-union employees who stop paying fees as a result of the decision. They’re also concerned that some union members might will stop paying if they can in essence get the union’s representation for free.

A recent study by Frank Manzo of the Illinois Public Policy Institute and Robert Bruno of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign estimated that public-sector unions could lose more than 700,000 members over time as a result of the ruling and that unions could also suffer a loss of political influence that could depress wages as well.

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