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Supreme Court Holds Requiring Public Sector Employees to Pay Representation Fees is Unconstitutional – Violates Government Employees’ First Amendment Rights

In its long awaited decision in Mark Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the United States Supreme Court clearly and unequivocally held that it is a violation of public employees’ First Amendment rights to require that they pay an “agency fee” to the union that is their collective bargaining representative, to cover their “fair share” of their union representative’s bargaining and contract enforcement expenses. The Janus decision overturns the Court’s own 1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which had found state and local laws requiring public sector employees to pay such fees to be lawful and constitutional. Commentators expect the decision to have serious economic consequences for unions in the heavily organized public sector.

While the Court in Abood had previously found that such laws requiring employees to pay representation or agency fees if they elected not to become dues paying members were permissible justified and to be upheld on the grounds that (1) they “promoted labor peace” and (2) that the effect of “free riders,” that is workers who benefitted from a union’s efforts but did not contribute to its efforts on their behalf justified mandating employees contribute, the Janus majority rejected both of these legal underpinnings in finding Abood had been improperly decided.

In Janus, Justice Samuel Alito concluded that the fears of interference with labor peace were unfounded based on the experience since 1977, and in any case, that these concerns, even if supported by evidence, could not satisfy the Court’s “exacting scrutiny” test that the majority held should be applied to circumstances such as these, where a state or local government entity sought to compel employees to subsidize the speech of others, i.e. their union representative and union member co-workers, who may endorse or support a union’s goals and objectives in collective bargaining and in its dealings with the employer. Notably, the analysis made clear that the speech in question was not political speech or campaign activity by unions, but rather speech in connection with positions taken in collective bargaining and labor relations. The Court also found that even if the agency fee statutes were evaluated under the less rigorous “strict scrutiny” test, it would have concluded that they were unconstitutional under that test as well.

What Does Janus Mean for Public Sector Employers and Workers?

At this time there are some 22 states in which agency fees are permitted by state or local law and an additional 28 states where they are not authorized. Under federal sector labor laws, the unions that represent employees of federal agencies and entities are not permitted to require employees to pay agency fees or become union members as a condition of continued employment.

With the Janus decision, simply put, provisions in collective bargaining agreements that require public employees to become union members, pay union dues or pay agency or representation fees as a condition of continued employment have been found to be unconstitutional and to impermissibly interfere with public employees’ freedoms of speech and assembly.

What is not yet clear is precisely how and when public sector employers and unions will be applying the decision. However, it is likely that as public employees who object to paying representation fees or paying union dues learn of this decision and the fact that they can no longer be compelled to pay agency fees or dues, employees will tell their employers to discontinue withholding fees and dues and paying them over to unions.

What is also already apparent is that there is likely to be resistance. Already, within hours of the release of the Janus decision, New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo issued his own statement signaling his views and opposition to the decision. He also announced his intention to issue an executive order shielding the addresses and phone numbers of public employees to make it more difficult for advocates to reach out to state employees and notify them of their options.

What Does Janus Mean for Public Sector Unions?

Simply put, if public employees exercise their right to stop paying agency fees to the unions that represent them, the unions will feel an immediate and substantial hit in their revenue and all that comes with that. The amounts at stake are substantial. According to a report by the Empire Center for New York State Policy, approximately 200,000 public workers in New York State alone are presently paying agency fees of more than $110 million dollars annually.

The Court was not unmindful of the financial and other impacts that the decision will have on unions that represent public employees. As Justice Alito wrote

We recognize that the loss of payments from nonmembers may cause unions to experience unpleasant transition costs in the short term, and may require unions to make adjustments in order to attract and retain members. . . “But we must weigh these disadvantages against the considerable windfall that unions have received” until now.

The impact in other states like California, Illinois (where the plaintiff in Janus is employed) and other states will clearly be substantial.

What Does Janus Mean in the Private Sector?

The Court’s decision in Janus is limited in its direct and immediate impact to public sector and does not apply to private sector employees who are covered by collective bargaining agreements containing union security clauses. Those clauses, which are only found in contracts in states that are not right to work states, require employees to become union members or pay agency or representation fees as a condition of continued employments.

That said, it is highly likely that the Janus decision will have spill-over effects in the private sector. As we reported last year, unions have a duty to make clear to employees who they represent under contracts containing union security clauses, that employees have rights and are not required to pay the same amount as agency fees as those who are members.

Additionally, the past few years have seen a resurgence in states passing laws to become right to work states and outlaw mandatory membership and/or agency fees. It can be anticipated that the Janus decision will likely result in more states and advocacy groups considering such legislation.

©2019 Epstein Becker & Green, P.C. All rights reserved.

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Adam C. Abrahms Labor Management Relations attorney Healthcare law lawyer
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ADAM C. ABRAHMS is a Member of the Firm in the Labor and Employment and Health Care and Life Sciences practices, in the firm's Los Angeles office, where he serves as a member of the firm's Labor Management Relations practice group. He has devoted his practice almost exclusively to aiding employers in developing strategies to remain union-free and, in organized operations, to securing and expanding management rights.

Mr. Abrahms:

  • Represents clients before the National Labor Relations Board and other federal and state agencies, and in federal and state...
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Steven M. Swirsky labor employment lawyer health care and life sciences attorney
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STEVEN M. SWIRSKY is a Member of the Firm in the Labor and Employment and Health Care and Life Sciences practices, in the firm's New York office. He regularly represents employers in a wide range of industries, including retail, health care, manufacturing, banking and financial services, manufacturing, transportation and distribution, electronics and publishing. He frequently advises and represents United States subsidiaries and branches of Asian, European and other foreign-based companies.

Mr. Swirsky:

  • Advises employers on a full range of labor and employment matters involving labor and employment issues in transactional matters
  • Represents employers in union avoidance, organizing campaigns, and related proceedings before the National Labor Relations Board
  • Represents employers in collective bargaining and in connection with strikes, picketing and arbitration proceedings
  • Handles grievances and arbitrations concerning work rule disputes and discharges, for both unionized and non-unionized employers
  • Assists with employment litigation, including Title VII, ADEA, ADA and other employment discrimination matters before state and federal courts and administrative tribunals including the EEOC, and the New York State Division of Human Rights
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