U.S. Supreme Court to Scrutinize Mandatory Union Fees Again

The U.S. Supreme Court said it will try for a second time to decide whether 5 million government workers can refuse to pay union fees, accepting a case that could deal a major blow to the labor movement’s finances and clout.

Getting a head start on a term that formally opens Monday, the justices Thursday said they will revisit an issue that deadlocked them in March 2016. The court will consider overturning a 1977 ruling that lets public-sector unions in 22 states demand fees from workers who aren’t members. Those so-called agency fees are designed to pay for union representation on such matters as pay negotiations.

Union critics say the mandatory fees violate the Constitution’s First Amendment, forcing workers to support unions that don’t share their priorities on matters of public importance. The court will hear an appeal from Mark Janus, an Illinois government employee challenging a state law that allows agency fees.

“Janus and millions of other public employees are effectively being required to support a government-appointed lobbyist,” his lawyers at the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation argued in the appeal.

The 1977 ruling, known as Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, said agency fees were constitutional so long as workers didn’t have to cover the cost of political or ideological activities.

Two years ago in a case involving California teachers, the court’s conservative wing had appeared to be on the brink of overturning Abood. But Justice Antonin Scalia’s February 2016 death left the group without a fifth vote, and the court instead split 4-4. Justice Neil Gorsuch’s arrival on the court may mean the effort to topple Abood is back on track.

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