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Public-sector unions prepare to be kneecapped at the Supreme Court

Supreme Court building with columns made out of raised fists
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

The Supreme Court is very likely on the verge of dealing a devastating blow to public-sector unions — one of the last remaining strongholds of organized labor, and a critical part of the Democratic Party’s base.

What to watch: The court will hear oral arguments today in a challenge to the fees public-sector unions collect from non-members. But the writing is already on the wall here. It would take a huge surprise for unions to get a reprieve.

The details: Public-sector unions collect dues from their members. They’re also allowed to collect so-called “agency fees” from people who work in unionized workplaces but aren’t members of the union.

  • The Supreme Court ruled in 1977, in a case called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, that non-members couldn’t be forced to pay for unions’ political activity, but that agency fees were OK because they only fund the union’s collective bargaining — which non-union employees still benefit from.
  • Conservatives have been taking aim at agency fees, urging the court to overrule Abood. They say agency fees are a form of compelled speech, and violate workers’ rights not to support unions’ message. Because they’re government employees, the challengers argue, even collective bargaining is political.

The impact: Even though the money at stake in this case is separate from the money public-sector unions pump into Democratic campaigns, weakening unions in the workplace would almost certainly weaken their political muscle as well. That’s why conservative activists have taken such a strong interest in this line of cases.

The odds: They’re definitely against the unions.

  • This is the third time the high court has taken a crack at this issue. In 2014, the justices issued a narrow ruling, but the conservatives suggested they might be willing to overturn Abood.
  • They got their chance in 2016, but Justice Antonin Scalia died shortly after oral arguments. That case ended in a 4-4 deadlock — which gave the unions a reprieve, but indicated that if Scalia had lived, or if he was replaced with a like-minded justice, Abood would be out.
  • That time has come. Barring any big surprises today from the four justices who were ready to strike down agency fees in 2016 — or a shocking pro-union bent from Justice Neil Gorsuch — this is likely the end of the road for Abood. And it's the beginning of a new, weaker era for the unions that represent teachers and other public-sector employees.

A ruling is expected by the end of June.