The US Supreme Court heard arguments on Monday in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, in which the court appears poised to strike a blow to organized labor by cutting off a major source of revenue for unions representing public sector employees. The plaintiff, Illinois state employee Mark Janus, is not an AFSCME member but pays “agency fees” to the union in return for benefiting from its collective bargaining activities—a practice allowed by the court in the 1977 case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. Janus, represented by the anti-union National Right to Work Committee, contends that these fees violate his First Amendment rights by forcing him to fund an organization that engages in political activities with which he may disagree.
The Supreme Court came close to striking down Abood in a separate case in 2016, but deadlocked 4–4 after the untimely death of Justice Antonin Scalia that February left its conservative wing without a fifth vote. Now, with the conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch filling its ninth seat, the court is widely expected to rule in Janus’s favor, NPR’s Nina Totenberg explains:
To get a feel for the court’s thinking, take a glance back to the argument in 2016. The teachers union, joined by the state of California, contended that fair-share arrangements prevent strikes and internal strife by providing a single elected union for the state, acting as employer, to deal with, as opposed to competing unions and groups of employees.
In many close controversies, Justice Kennedy is the justice most likely to be open to persuasion, but he is something of a purist on First Amendment free speech questions. Two years ago, he disputed the characterization of those who didn’t want to pay partial union fees as “free riders.” Rather, he said, the union was making them into “compelled riders.”