ROCKVILLE — Local union leaders, members of the County Council and the County Executive gathered in solidarity last week before the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that could do significant harm to labor unions, and in the process, cut off a major source of funds to Democrats across the country.
On Monday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The case will determine whether public sector unions can legally require employees who are not union members – but still reap the benefits of a collectively-bargained contract – to pay the union so-called “fair share” fees. 22 states allow public-sector unions require employees who are not members to pay such fees – which are generally 20-30 percent less than full union dues – if the union negotiates their employment contract.
Union leaders argue the fees are justified when unions negotiate a contract to benefit members and nonmembers alike. But plaintiff Mark Janus and his allies at the conservative Liberty Institute argue that the law which requires him to pay such a fee violates his First Amendment rights because public sector unions often engage in political activity in support of Democrats.
The Supreme Court previously found such laws to be constitutional in 1977, ruling in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that states can require public employees to pay for unions’ collective bargaining efforts, and that employees who object to unions’ political activities can require the union to refund the percentage of fees that they spend on such activities. Despite this previous ruling, conservatives hope last year’s addition of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the court will result in a decision in Janus’ favor.
Such a ruling has long been coveted by conservatives, not only because unions negotiate generous public employee salaries and benefits which must be funded by taxes – particularly in states that are constitutionally required to have a balanced budget – but also because public sector unions have long been significant contributors to Democratic candidates.
County elected officials filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case on the unions’ behalf, in which they stressed the importance of public employee unions. But while the union leaders and county officials stood together in solidarity, the case is now out of their hands.
“Really, the future of collective bargaining is in many ways at stake, and for us in Montgomery County, the future of our labor management partnership is at stake,” said County Council President Hans Riemer (Dat large). “[W]e are very concerned about our government’s ability to work closely with our employees to achieve our goals.”
While an unfavorable decision could have long-reaching implications for unions throughout the United States, Municipal and County Government Employees Organization, president Gino Renne said a Supreme Court ruling against them would not radically change union power in Montgomery County, and if the court prohibits his union from collecting fees from nonmembers, MCGEO would move to begin excluding them from any future collective bargaining agreements it might negotiate.
While local union leaders worry about a potential Supreme Court decision striking a blow to union’s power nationally, Renne said he and other union leaders are confident such a decision would not impact MCGEO’s influence with the county’s union-friendly government, and criticized conservatives in many states who blame their state’s fiscal woes on the cost of salaries and benefits guaranteed by union-negotiated contracts.
“It’s not the workers’ fault or AFCSM fault that Illinois cannot pay their bills,” he said. “We don’t have that problem in Montgomery County…because we enjoy a strong, collaborative working relationship and partnership, and we want to maintain that.”
According to Renne, only 172 county employees out of the approximately 9,000 MCGEO represents have not elected to become union members. While MCGEO members’ annual union dues cost approximately $700 per year, nonmembers only save 20 to 30 percent of that when paying the “fair share” fee, with the exact amount determined by an outside auditor, who is usually hired by the union. Labor leaders argue the fees are justified by the cost of the collective bargaining process, which often requires unions to employ outside experts and consultants to ensure the best possible contract.
“It’s not about supporting the union, it’s about supporting, financially supporting your right to have a seat at the table and to help determine what your wages are, what your benefits package are, what your working conditions are,” Renne said.