Herald-Whig View

Court likely to turn union fee collection on its head

Posted: Mar. 2, 2018 2:50 pm

This editorial was printed in the Chicago Tribune.

Mark Janus is a child support specialist for the state of Illinois who, like many Illinoisans, disagrees with the policies of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Though he has chosen not to join AFSCME, Janus is required under Illinois law to pay fees to the union that represents state workers. He would like to stop doing so, rather than support positions and activities that conflict with his views. And the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in the case Monday, looks inclined to let him.

Those state employees who decline to join the union are exempt from that portion of dues that go to finance its political action. But they are forced to pay "fair share" fees that supposedly reflect the benefit they get from the union's collective bargaining. The rationale is that if workers could opt out of any payments, those doing so would be "free riders": They would reap the pay and conditions the union negotiates -- while paying members bear the union's costs.

There are obvious problems with AFSCME's argument for compulsory fees. The first is that the union has the discretion to decide what counts as political spending and what doesn't.

More basic, though, is that when a union negotiates on behalf of public workers, everything it does is inherently political.

In a parallel case from California two years ago, Chief Justice John Roberts asked the lawyer for the state to name a topic of collective bargaining that has nothing to do with such matters.

When the lawyer cited "mileage reimbursements," Roberts disagreed: "It's all money. If you give more mileage expenses (to teachers), the amount that's going to be allocated to public education as opposed to public housing, welfare benefits -- that's always a public policy issue."

Mandatory fees require dissenting nonmembers to support beliefs they reject. But the right of free speech, as the court long has recognized, includes the freedom not to speak.

In 2014, the Supreme Court said that "except in perhaps the rarest of circumstances, no person in this country may be compelled to subsidize speech by a third party that he or she does not wish to support." This case is a chance for the justices to say: And we mean it.