A divided U.S. Supreme Court said government employees have a constitutional right not to pay union fees in a ruling that affects 5 million workers and deals a heavy blow to the labor movement.
The 5-4 decision overturns a 1977 Supreme Court ruling that had let public-sector unions collect so-called agency fees from non-members in about two dozen states to help cover the cost of collective bargaining. The court’s newest member, Neil Gorsuch, joined his conservative colleagues in the majority.
Writing for the court, Justice Samuel Alito said mandatory fees violate the free speech rights of workers who disagree with the union’s positions.
"It is hard to estimate how many billions of dollars have been taken from nonmembers and transferred to public-sector unions in violation of the First Amendment," Alito wrote. "Those unconstitutional exactions cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely."
Read more: QuickTake on America’s Labor Unions
The case split the court along ideological lines. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.
"There is no sugarcoating today’s opinion," Kagan wrote for the minority. "The majority overthrows a decision entrenched in this nation’s law — and in 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."
President Donald Trump, on Twitter, called the ruling a "Big loss for the coffers of the Democrats!"
The ruling came on the final opinion day of a Supreme Court term that featured a series of 5-4 victories for conservatives, including Tuesday’s decision upholding Trump’s travel ban.
The court split 4-4 the last time it considered the issue in 2016 following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Organized labor is a big supporter of Democratic candidates and interests. Last year, unions strongly opposed Gorsuch's nomination by Trump.
The case involving Illinois state government worker Mark Janus is similar to the one the justices took up in 2016. At that time, the court appeared to be ready to overrule a 1997 high court decision that serves as the legal foundation for the fair share fees. But Scalia's death left the court tied, and a lower court 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 the states, including Indiana, 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 that not only will workers who don't belong to a union stop paying fees, but that some union members might decide to stop paying dues if they could 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 also could suffer a loss of political influence that could depress wages as well.