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Supreme Court Considers “Fair Share” Laws

Over the last several decades, public sector unions that represent state and local government employees have steadily increased in power and influence in the United States. This has partially been due to the ability of these unions to enjoy a stable stream of revenue due to “fair share” laws that allow them to collect dues from all employees in unionized bargaining units regardless of whether they actually join the union. The validity of these “fair share” laws has stood for some time. However, a current case before the United States Supreme Court seeks to challenge these laws on constitutional grounds.

On January 21, 2014, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case of Harris v. Quinn. This case, brought by Illinois home care workers, challenges the legality of allowing public sector unions to charge “fair share” dues to public employees who work in union shops but are not members of the union. Right-to-work advocates argue that this is tantamount to compelled speech in violation of the First Amendment. At oral argument, the justices posed numerous compelling questions to all the attorneys involved:

  • Justice Scalia, usually a conservative voice on the court, expressed concerns that right-to-work advocates may be going too far.
  • Justice Kagan pointed out that similar disputes in Wisconsin had led to widespread public outcry and the attempted recall of the state’s governor.
  • Justice Breyer opined that overruling the precedent that allows public sector fair-share fees would essentially require the destruction of the public employee’s right to organize.

Of course, it is notoriously difficult to judge how cases will be decided based on the tenor of the justices’ questioning. However, a decision in favor of right-to-work advocates would have a devastating impact on public sector unions. Labor relations attorneys await this decision with interest.

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