The Riggs Report: Labor’s big loss

Supreme Court ruling seriously undermines union clout in California

The U.S. Supreme Court shook up California’s political structure in a big way with Wednesday’s ruling that unions can no longer require members to pay representation, or “fair share” fees. To say that California’s labor unions—important players in who gets elected in California and what bills get passed in Sacramento—are dismayed is an understatement.

“Today’s Janus ruling is an attack on working people and is the result of a well-funded and nationally orchestrated effort to weaken the ability of working men and women to come together as unions and to speak with one united voice,” said Eric Heins, president of the California Teachers Association, in a tweet immediately following the ruling. “For educators, this is an attempt to weaken our ability to stand up on behalf of our students and quality public schools.”

The ruling “came down on the wrong side of history. Janus puts one more roadblock in the way of working people coming together in union to raise wages, improve their jobs and make their communities stronger,” read another tweet from the Service Employees International State Council.

The Janus case “was always about hobbling unions as part of the agenda of billionaire right-wing donors, including the Koch Brothers, to siphon money away from the middle class directly into their own pockets,” said Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation, in a commentary published by The Sacramento Bee.

The court’s decision was no surprise. A similar case involving the California Teachers Association , known as Friedrichs v. the CTA, ended in a tie vote in 2016 with the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Ever since, the unions knew that they were living on borrowed time when it came to the issue of “fair share” fees.

The court’s 5-4 ruling overrules a 1977 decision which provided for unions to collect fees intended to cover a member’s fair share of the costs to negotiate a labor contract. That fee was allowed, even if the employee had no interest in belonging to the union, in order to prevent that employee from getting a free ride and benefiting from collective bargaining without sharing the cost.

The current case was brought by Mark Janus, an Illinois child support worker, who argued that he should be protected by the First Amendment from being required to support political activity. Although the fees are not used for political purposes, Janus successfully argued that collective bargaining was itself inherently political.

The ruling could lead to a significant erosion of labor’s clout, if unions see a significant drop off in membership and revenues. In California, that would affect labor’s ability to influence the outcome in close races.

The Janus decision wasn’t the only setback for progressive and liberal interests on Wednesday.

Justice Anthony Kennedy of Sacramento, who voted with the majority in Wednesday’s ruling, let it be known immediately afterward that he would retire from the bench this summer. Kennedy, 81, was appointed by President Ronald Reagan. His departure will give President Donald Trump a key opportunity to nominate a fifth conservative justice that would have the effect of moving the court further to the right.