Unions Rally Here as High Court Hears Case on Mandatory Fees

By Moore, Daniel | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), February 27, 2018 | Go to article overview

Unions Rally Here as High Court Hears Case on Mandatory Fees


Moore, Daniel, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


As the biggest threat to organized labor in recent memory advances this week before a conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court, labor unions have already begun to prepare for the fallout.

On Monday morning, hundreds of union members and supporters rallied in Mellon Square in Downtown and marched along Grant Street during morning rush hour to protest what they see as a corporate-funded attempt to bust unions nationwide. The crowd was mostly the Service Employees International Union, which represents public sector workers including 911 operators, unemployment compensation referees and human services staff.

"Today is a dark day," Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said. "It's a day that is pushing us back 100 years.

"But let me tell you this: For anyone working in the city of Pittsburgh, I don't care what they say. You are going to be represented, whether you're the [Fraternal Order of Police], whether you're the firefighters, whether you're the SEIU, where you're the laborers. We are going to recognize and we are going to respect it."

The case - Janus vs. the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees - centers on a clash between free speech and the right of public sector labor unions to collect fees from government workers who do not want representation.

AFSCME argues its fees are the modest and necessary cost to raise the standards of working people. The plaintiff, Mark Janus, an Illinois state government employee, argues that the union is forcing him to subsidize political views he doesn't support, violating his First Amendment rights.

The case is the latest salvo in an escalating political debate over the dues-collecting power of unions.

Some states that have high rates of unionization and Republican-controlled legislatures have passed right-to-work laws that allow union employees, including those in the private sector, to opt out of paying dues. More than half of all states now have such laws.

Pennsylvania does not have a right-to-work law.

A ruling against unions in the Janus case would strike a more devastating blow, essentially making the right-to-work setup the nationwide law for public sector workers.

The public sector has been a bastion of support for labor unions as organized labor has declined in the private sector. About 34 percent of public sector workers - about 7.2 million people - were members of a union in 2017, compared with less than 7 percent of workers in the private sector, according to government data.

Labor advocates point out that government jobs, in particular, are a gateway to the middle class and stable careers for people such as teachers, bus drivers and public safety workers including police, firefighters and 911 operators.

The court is widely expected to back Mr. Janus along ideological lines.

Last year, the Supreme Court deadlocked 4-4 on a similar case in which a California teacher challenged a statewide labor union over mandatory fees. That ruling came following Justice Antonin Scalia's death and before the confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch, which restored the court's 5-4 conservative majority.

During oral arguments Monday, Mr. Gorsuch reportedly stayed silent as his colleagues sparred with lawyers from both sides.

"You're basically arguing, do away with unions," Justice Sonia Sotomayor told William Messenger, a lawyer with the National Right to Work Legal Foundation, the group representing Mr. …

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