In a landmark decision overturning a 40-year-old precedent, the U.S. Supreme Court this week ruled that states cannot force public sector workers to pay union fees.

In a 5-4 decision issued June 27, the court ruled the mandatory fees unions charge nonunion members violate their free speech rights "by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern."

U.S. Supreme Court public sector unions ruling
Ruling: Government workers in 22 states—including Connecticut—who choose not to join a union are longer forced to pay fees.

"States and public sector unions may no longer extract agency fees from nonconsenting employees," Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority.

"This procedure violates the First Amendment and cannot continue."

The ruling in Janus vs. AFSCME means government workers in 22 states—including Connecticut—who choose not to join a union are longer forced to pay fees.

Overturns 1977 Ruling

The decision overturned a 1977 court ruling that states could allow public employee unions to collect fees from nonmembers to cover the cost of salaries and benefits negotiations, but not political activities.

The case pitted Illinois state employee Mark Janus against the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31.

Janus was not an AFSCME member but was still required to pay fees to the union. Those fees exceeded 78% of the local AFSCME council's membership dues.

This week's ruling does not apply to private sector union membership, and it's not yet clear what impact the court's decision will have on Connecticut's state employee unions.

Of Connecticut's 209,900 public sector workers, 66% are union members—the highest percentage of the New England states and one of the highest in the country.

Nationally, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says about 34% of all public sector employees belong to a union.

Reactions

In a statement, Governor Dannel Malloy called the court's ruling "a blow to the principles of collective bargaining—but more worrisome, it is a blow to the ability of unions to effectively represent the interests of the workers they are charged with defending."

A Malloy spokesperson later told the Hartford Courant the administration will "carefully review the decision in the coming days, consider its implications, and respond accordingly."

The court's ruling could lead to reduced union membership and revenues, and potentially weaken the political power public sector unions have at the local, state, and national levels.

Two-thirds of Connecticut's 209,900 public sector workers are union members—one of the highest percentages in the country.
"We recognize that the loss of payments from nonmembers may cause unions to experience unpleasant transition costs in the short term," Justice Alito wrote.

"It is hard to estimate how many billions of dollars have been taken from nonmembers and transferred to public sector unions in violation of the First Amendment. Those unconstitutional exactions cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely."

'Landmark Victory'

The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which funded the case, called it "a landmark victory for the rights of public sector employees coast-to-coast that will free millions of teachers, police officers, firefighters, and other public employees from mandatory union payments."

AFSCME officials called the ruling an "unprecedented and nefarious political attack designed to further rig the rules against working people."

Not every union official was as concerned about the ruling.

Frank Ricci, president of New Haven Firefighters, International Association of Fire Fighters Local 825, took to Twitter to say the ruling "will have no impact on full union members."

"I believe this will help refocus unions away from social issues back to wages, hours, and working conditions," Ricci posted.