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The Supreme Court has delivered a potentially crushing blow to public-sector unions, ruling 5-4 today that they cannot collect fees from non-members. The ruling will likely diminish unions’ negotiating power and, with it, their political clout.

Why it matters: The public sector is one of the last bastions of labor’s strength — about 34% of government workers are unionized, compared with just 6.5% of the private sector. But this ruling could shrink those rolls significantly.

The details: The court struck down so-called “agency fees” that unions collect from non-members.

  • Those fees can only be used for collective bargaining, not overtly political activity. The rationale is that everyone in a workplace benefits from union negotiations over things like salary and time off, so everyone should contribute.
  • But critics say that because these unions are bargaining with the government, their bargaining is inherently political. The Supreme Court agreed with that position today.

Between the lines: The writing was on the wall with this one. The court’s conservative majority has been inching closer to striking down agency fees for years.

The impact: Unions say the loss of agency fees will contribute to a “free-rider” problem — workers will still benefit from unions’ negotiations and won’t see a need to join. But without agency fees, unions won’t be able to afford the lawyers and other staff who drive their negotiations, making membership ultimately seem like a worse deal.

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