The State Worker

Supreme Court takes case that could hit California public employee unions

California’s public sector unions are bracing for a Supreme Court decision that could lead to steep drops in membership and revenue.

The Supreme Court on Thursday announced that it will hear an Illinois lawsuit that challenges the ability of public-sector unions to collect so-called agency fees. They’re the charges that public sector unions in California collect from all employees they represent, regardless of whether workers want to belong to the bargaining group.

Unions charge the fees to prevent workers from becoming “free riders” in gaining the benefits of representation without paying for them. Critics contend the fees infringe on workers’ First Amendment rights by forcing them to support an organization with political views they may oppose.

“With the Supreme Court agreeing to hear the (right to work) case, we are now one step closer to freeing over 5 million public sector teachers, police officers, firefighters, and other employees from the injustice of being forced to subsidize a union as a condition of working for their own government,” said Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.

Attorneys from the foundation are representing Illinois child support specialist Mark Janus in the lawsuit. The foundation also has sued California unions to force changes in compulsory fees, including state government’s largest union, Service Employees International Union Local 1000.

The high court last year heard a similar case that was filed against the California Teachers Association, but Justice Antonin Scalia’s death left the court deadlocked. Newly appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch is in position to break the tie.

California union leaders criticized the court’s decision to take the new case. They worry that some workers will be tempted to break with the union rather pay for representation.

“Janus is simply the culmination of decades of attacks on working people by corporate CEOs, the wealthiest 1 percent and the politicians that do their bidding to rig the economy in their favor, and its outcome could further send our country in the wrong direction,” said Eric Heins, president of the California Teachers Association.

The court is expected to hear the case next year and issue a decision by early summer.

Adam Ashton: 916-321-1063, @Adam_Ashton. Sign up for state worker news alerts at