Mark Janus works for the state of Illinois. He had been paying $45/month to a labor union, despite that he was not a member of the union. In fact, he is politically opposed to labor unions, and he did not want to pay.
Janus brought this suit arguing that the state cannot impose union fees on him. He said the First Amendment protects him from supporting a view he does not agree with. Money is support, and he does not want to support the union.
In a major overruling of precedent, the Supreme Court ruled in Janus’ favor.
The 1977 case
The same issue came up in 1977 – whether pubic employees could be required to pay union fees – and the Supreme Court said yes (Abood v. Detroit Board of Education). It’s a big deal for the Court to overrule its own precedent.
So what made the difference?
Justice Alito, writing for the majority, said the big concerns used in Abood to justify overruling the First Amendment were really not so big.
One of them is the concern that other unions would pop up, once we let people step out of the original one. While today’s Court agreed that could be a problem (cause confusion and disruption in labor bargaining), it said the concern is not real. All the government would need to do is to limit exclusive bargaining to an employer to one union. That union would get a major benefit regardless of whether it had all of the employees. For example, federal government employees have several unions with exclusive bargaining in their respective industries and it seems to work out.
Next, Abood said there would be a problem of “free riders,” people who get the benefit of the union bargaining but don’t pay in. Law requires unions to bargain on behalf of all employees, so they can’t just work out deals for the union’s members and not the others. The Court said, so what? Many organizations exist to provide a benefit to people but don’t require all beneficiaries to pay.
The Court quickly mentioned a third rationale, raised more recently and by the union in this case, that unions will not be adequately funded without everyone paying in. That would harm the union’s ability to bargain exclusively. The Court dismissed this concern quickly.
In the end, the Court overruled Abood, saying it was too lenient on the government and that the ruling was out of place.
The liberal wing dissented. The dissenters were very concerned with the ability of a union to support itself without getting fees from all employees. Justice Kagan distinguished the examples of common free riders that the majority had no problem with to free riders of union bargaining. Unions are required to bargain by law on behalf of everyone. To the dissent, this and other unique aspects of union responsibilities justify the burden on the First Amendment that Janus complained of.