SCOTUS Rules on Landmark Union Case, No Immediate Effect for ECs

On June 27, the Supreme Court ruled on the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, declaring it unconstitutional for public-sector unions to charge non-members mandatory collective-bargaining fees.

The decision overturns a 41-year-old precedent set by a unanimous court in 1977 (Abood v. Detroit Board of Education) and has prompted broad concern over the future of U.S. unions. According to experts, however, unions in the electrical construction industry will face no immediately foreseeable effects because the Janus decision applies only to state and municipal government employees.

The Supreme Court 5-to-4 ruling is the ultimate result of a complaint filed by Mark Janus, a child-support specialist at the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services. Janus claimed the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) violated his first amendment rights when the organization charged him a $45 monthly fee to represent him even though Janus was not a member.

For decades, this particular issue has been entrenched in union opponents and supporters over concerns of "free riders," employees who do not pay to be a member of a union but who nevertheless benefit from the collective bargaining efforts.

The conflict's focus is in how right-to-work rules break down. The Janus decision states unions that represent government employees must operate under right-to-work rules, which means unions may not require non-members to contribute to the cost of collective bargaining. However, the law requires those unions to represent all members, regardless of whether they belong to the union.

Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the consensus opinion for the court, argued the previous interpretation of the laws had created "captive riders," who may disagree with a union's political positions but who are forced to support them.

With the Janus ruling, union proponents fear the incentive for state and local government employees to pay for membership has been undermined. Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her dissenting opinion that this ruling would "wreak havoc" on labor agreements throughout the country.

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers President Lonnie R. Stephenson had strong words against the decision.

"The Supreme Court’s decision in the Janus v. AFSCME case is nothing but an all-out assault on the basic freedom of working people to come together to better their lives and their communities," Stephenson wrote in a public statement. "This is not just an attack on public-sector workers. It is an attack on every single American who works for a living, and it is only the first step in an effort to repeal every right won by working people in this country."

Despite broad concerns this ruling harms U.S. unions in general, this decision will directly affect unions that represent state and local government workers only, according to Geary Higgins, Vice President, Labor Relations and Workforce Development, NECA. It will not impact electrical contractors. Regardless, industry advocates, such as the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), keep an eye on developments as they unfold with the intent of advocating for electrical contractors.

"Our labor relations department will continue to monitor subsequent lower court rulings as challenges arise from this ongoing, and unfinished, judicial battle," Higgins said.

Union supporters were upset by the Janus decision over fears opponents of U.S. unions will continue to seek their elimination. However, some industry advocates urged calm on the issue because there was no indication of further legal or legislative developments at this time.

"From a Congressional standpoint, there is no appetite to successfully roll back key labor laws such as Davis-Bacon, project labor agreements, or national right-to-work as there is considerable bipartisan support for those issues," said Marco Giamberardino, Executive Director, Government Affairs, NECA.

In broader political issues, opponents of the Janus decision point out the biggest loss will be for the Democratic Party, which receives a significant amount of funding from unions. According to Politico, the Janus decision could reduce political spending from the biggest contributors—the AFSCME, the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Education Association—from $166 million in the 2016 election cycle to around $55 million. The Washington Post reported the National Education Association could lose as many as 200,000 members and be forced to cut its budget by $28 million.

Therefore, in the broader scheme of U.S. unions, Janus could have a significant effect. However, in the electrical construction industry, it should have no immediate effect.

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