Supreme Court’s Janus Decision: What Does It Mean?

On June 27, 2018, the US Supreme Court issued its long expected decision in the case of Janus v. AFSCME, Council 31. By a 5-4 majority, the Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for a union representing public employees (federal, state, or municipal) to require its members to pay anything to their union, even though, in most states, that union still has a duty to represent them. If it seems odd for the Supreme Court to rule that unions, private organizations funded by workers’ dues, should have to provide free services to fellow workers who choose not to pay dues, welcome to the current political landscape. But, first, how does the case affect unions now?

Janus has no effect on unions representing private employees. It deals only with public employee unions, such as police officers, fire fighters, teachers, municipal and state workers.

If you are a union member, you continue being a member. There is no direct effect on you.

The immediate impact is: there is no more required agency service fee. What, you may ask, is an agency service fee?

In certain states with public sector collective bargaining laws, such as Massachusetts (governed by Chapter 150E), when a union is chosen by a group of workers to represent them for collective bargaining purposes, that union is obligated to represent all of the employees in that particular group. The group represented by the union is called a bargaining unit. For example, when the police in, say, Lynn, voted to be represented by the Lynn Police Association, that Association (for our purposes, “Association” and “Union” are the same thing) became the “exclusive collective bargaining representative” of the bargaining unit of all of the police in Lynn. Under Chapter 150E, that Association became legally obligated to represent all of the Lynn police, because they are all part of its bargaining unit.

Under preexisting law, public employees could not be compelled to join a union, even when that union has a duty to represent them. However, in Massachusetts and other states with fully developed labor laws, bargaining unit employees who did not want to join their union could be required to pay their fair, proportionate share of the union’s cost of representing them. As members of the bargaining unit, agency fee payers receive the same wages and contractual benefits as union members. Their grievances had to be processed the same as members’ grievances. This “fair share” payment is an agency service fee.

Generally, the amount of the agency service fee was somewhere around 80-85% of the union dues. Not being union members, employees who paid agency service fees could not run for union office, serve in any union position, or have any say in how their unions were run. They also received considerably fewer services than union members, but more about this below. Suffice it to say that, in Massachusetts, not many workers opted to be agency fee payers and, among public safety unions, they were virtually non-existent.

The Janus decision says members of a bargaining unit who refuse to join their union can no longer be required to pay an agency service fee. In fact, they cannot be required to pay anything. Yet their union, under existing Mass. law, still has a duty to represent them in the areas where the union serves as the exclusive collective bargaining representative. Those areas are contract negotiations and grievance processing.

While the case was supposedly decided on First Amendment (“free speech”) grounds, anyone who thinks it a product of refined legal reasoning and scholarship should consider applying to Trump University. The decision is designed to cripple public sector unions, who provide both funds and foot soldiers for causes which ultra-conservative billionaires like the Koch Brothers oppose. We need only look at the 62-38 trouncing of the charter school referendum in the 2016 Mass. election. Only the human and economic resources of teacher and other unions (both public and private sector) succeeded in countering the tens of millions of dollars the charter school proponents pumped into the campaign. These ultra-rich also don’t particularly enjoy paying taxes so that police officers, fire fighters, teachers, and other public workers can lead decent lives with decent benefits and retire on livable pensions. In short, Janus is only superficially about free speech; what it’s really about is breaking unions.

While quitting your union and letting your co-workers’ dues pay for the cost of negotiating your contract and handling your grievances may be an option for some, there are significant downsides to this approach. In many unions, particularly public safety, union members receive significant benefits outside of the contract which are not provided to non-members. Unions represent their members in civil service, retirement, unemployment, and other areas where non-members receive no services. For police officers, in particular, unions provide legal representation at critical incidents and defend their members in civil and criminal cases arising out of their employment. Union members also receive representation in both departmental (“internal affairs”) and external (state and/or federal) investigations. Since these services are provided outside of the collective bargaining agreement, non-members receive none of them. Teachers in Massachusetts who are wrongly terminated can appeal only through an individual arbitration process. The union will fight to get its members their jobs back; non-members can either represent themselves or mortgage their homes to hire their own counsel.

Besides these specific and practical reasons, public workers, at least in Massachusetts, need only look at the benefits they have gained through collective bargaining. During this past year, we have seen teachers in states without union bargaining rights (West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky) marching on their state capitals to achieve even the most modest wage and benefit improvements. While public employees in Mass. have not gotten rich, they have at least been able, for the most part, to be able to lead decent lives, raise and support their families, and retire with some modicum of financial security.

You can anticipate that anti-union groups will conduct a negative campaign to try and convince you to abandon your union and stop paying dues. Groups like the NRTW (National Right to Work) organization, (an oxymoron if ever there was one) will undoubtedly conduct a campaign. They will likely start with the teachers, but all other public employee unions will come next. Members who want to abandon their union must, in Massachusetts, provide at least 60 days’ notice of cancellation. This will provide you and others from your union an opportunity to educate your colleague. The message is very simple: Your union is only as strong as its members; working together we can make our lives better and have some say in our destiny.

Not too long ago, when you bought a house, you got a 30 year mortgage. You paid the same amount every month and, over time, you gained some equity. If you stayed in the house, eventually you paid it off and not only had a place to live but also something to pass on to your children. Then, about 20 years ago, some Wall Street sharpies got a lot of people to refinance or buy new houses. For the first few years, there were very low monthly payments on artificially low interest rates with no payments of principal. The sharpies made a lot of money creating and selling complex financial instruments with these mortgages. If your house went up in value and you sold it, it was a great deal. But in 2008 and 2009, when you couldn’t sell your house, all of a sudden the principal payments and higher interest rates kicked in and the monthly payments were crushing. A lot of people lost their homes.

This is what Janus is all about. On the surface, getting some of the benefits without paying anything looks great. But, over the long haul, you’re just being taken for a sucker. Let’s not get fooled again.

3 thoughts on “Supreme Court’s Janus Decision: What Does It Mean?”

  1. Thank you Alan, great job explaining this fiasco. Is there a way that the Massachusetts legislature can change something in the law to fix this? Take care

    1. Jimmy: There are three potential legal fixes which are being considered nationally, although a union coalition here in Mass. is not recommending any of them. They are: (1) amend the state law to remove exclusive representation so that the union would represent only the members for all activities; (2) amend state law so that non-members would receive no union representation in the grievance/arbitration process; and (3) amend state law so unions could charge non-members for representation in grievance/arbitration processing and other activities. The consensus of many unions, particularly the teachers, is that unions should use this opportunity to educate and organize members. Although these approaches may be superficially appealing, in the end, we are stronger with universal membership and that should be our goal. Best.

  2. Hi Alan,bobby(Raytheon Guards Association),great article, you are correct,Koch and company, and right to work, are hurting
    everybody, public and private. I wonder about all that (PAC) money! How does that fit in here, maybe unions should look at this as a way to fight back!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *