June 28. 2018 7:16AM

Big blow dealt to nation's unions

New Hampshire Union Leader

The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that non-members cannot be forced in certain states to pay fees to unions representing public employees such as teachers and police, shutting off a key union revenue source. ((Dreamstime/TNS))

The Supreme Court on Wednesday dealt a blow to organized labor, ruling that non-members cannot be forced to pay fees to unions representing public employees, such as teachers and police, shutting off a key union revenue source.

Gov. Chris Sununu and other Republicans applauded the decision, while Democrats called it an affront to working families.

On a 5-4 vote powered by the court’s conservative majority, the justices overturned a 1977 Supreme Court precedent that had allowed so-called agency fees that are collected from millions of non-union workers in lieu of union dues to fund non-political activities like collective bargaining.

The court ruled that forcing non-members to pay agency fees to unions whose views they may oppose violates their rights to free speech and free association under the Constitution’s First Amendment. Workers in the public sector who do not want to pay agency fees could start withholding them immediately, said Bill McQuillen, president of the Professional Firefighters of New Hampshire.

“The Supreme Court has spoken and that’s the law of the land,” he said. “It’s an unfortunate decision, as it now makes it more difficult for people to represent the middle-class workers. That having been said, I don’t believe it’s going to have a big impact on our organization because by and large our members want to affiliate with the PFFNH.”

The ruling does not apply to private-sector unions.

Unions ‘stand united’

Representatives of other public employee unions in New Hampshire echoed that sentiment.

“Public sector unions nationwide are standing united today,” said Richard Gulla, president of the State Employees Association, one of the state’s largest public sector unions. “Our nearly 8,000 members remain committed to sticking together and holding politicians accountable to ensure the system isn’t rigged against working men and women.”

Sununu led an unsuccessful effort to pass right-to-work legislation in 2017, which guarantees that no one can be compelled, as a condition of employment, to join or pay dues to a labor union. The Janus decision means that more than five million public employees in 22 states that don’t have a right-to-work law, including New Hampshire, can no longer be forced to pay dues or the agency fee.

“As a supporter of right-to-work, I am pleased by the court’s ruling,” Sununu said. “In the coming days, we will work to determine necessary next steps to ensure that New Hampshire statutes and policies are fully compliant with constitutional requirements.”

Writing for the court, conservative Justice Samuel Alito said that while the ruling “may cause unions to experience unpleasant transition costs in the short term” that must be weighed against “how many billions of dollars have been taken from nonmembers and transferred to public-sector unions in violation of the First Amendment.”

The four liberal justices dissented.

Unions contend that mandatory agency fees are needed to eliminate the problem of what they call “free riders” — non-members who benefit from union representation, for example through salary and working conditions obtained in collective bargaining — without paying for it.

Curbing influence

Conservative activists took aim at the fees as they sought to curb the influence of unions, which often support the Democratic Party and liberal causes, and as a First Amendment issue.

“As Jefferson wrote in his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, ‘to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical,’” said Andrew Cline, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy in Concord.

“Today the Supreme Court affirmed the core American principle, enshrined in the First Amendment, that no individual may be forced to finance opinions with which he disagrees.”

The plaintiff in the case is Mark Janus, a child-support specialist for the state of Illinois who opted not to join the union that represents employees like him, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). A lower court had ruled against Janus, setting up the Supreme Court showdown.

AFSCME and other public-sector unions called the case a well-funded attack by corporations and billionaires to undermine organized labor.

‘Empowering workers’

Greg Moore, state director with Americans For Prosperity, said the decision empowers workers across the country, and especially in states like New Hampshire without right-to-work laws.

“This issue is especially important to me,” said Moore. “As a former director in the Department of Health and Human Services when the state implemented agency fees in 2006, it was extremely frustrating to sit across the desk from employees and explain to them that the state was taking money out of their paycheck to pay for a union they didn’t support or agree with.

“After today’s ruling, no government worker will be forced to have their wages taken from them to pay for unions they don’t want to be a part of.”

The Union Leader obtained a memo Attorney General Gordon MacDonald sent to Administrative Services Commissioner Charles Arlinghaus making it clear that as of the next payroll on July 6 all state workers must give permission to have any fees withheld from their paychecks.

"As a result of this decision, the Department of Administrative Services must immediately stop deducting an agency fee from any state employee," MacDonald wrote.

"No agency fee should be deducted from paychecks issued on that date and thereafter unless the employee has given his or her consent."

Material from Reuters was used in this report.