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The Supreme Court Just Weakened Public-Sector Unions. What Will Happen Next?

Pacific Standard spoke with a labor researcher about the likely effects of Wednesday's landmark Supreme Court decision.
Hundreds of union members held a rally outside of San Francisco City Hall in February of 2018 as the Supreme Court began to hear oral arguments in the Janus case.

Hundreds of union members held a rally outside of San Francisco City Hall in February of 2018 as the Supreme Court began to hear oral arguments in the Janus V. AFSCME case.

In a landmark decision on Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled that government workers—such as public school teachers and agency employees—don't have to pay union fees if they don't wish, even if the union bargains on their behalf. The decision applies to at least five million workers in 23 states and the District of Columbia. (The other 27 states already have laws that achieve the same results as this ruling.)

To understand how Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) affects government workers and local economies, Pacific Standard spoke with Robert Bruno, who studies unions at the University of Illinois and co-authored a report last month predicting the effects of this decision, based on the existing research.


What are the major effects you expect to see?

The decision of the court is going to weaken the ability of workers, in the public sector, to have a voice in how their work is done and the value that's placed on their work. We would expect that there would be a loss of influence in establishing the working conditions and regulating the workplace. They'll receive lower pay. Their health benefits won't be as strong. Their retirement benefits will weaken.

We think this decision will reduce the number of union members, certainly at least initially.

Those jobs [will become] less appealing. They'll attract fewer people who are the most competitive. I think that puts at risk the quality of the service that we get in the public sector.

Why is allowing people to not pay fees expected to shrink union membership?

The expectation is that, while plenty of workers will feel good about the benefits they get from a union, if they could get those benefits, but maybe not pay their dues, they won't. So the thought is you're going to get a certain number of people that will defect.

How do we know this will happen?

There are 27 states right now that passed laws that prohibit this fair-share payment. So 27 states have what the Supreme Court just imposed on the other 23. Many of these states have had these laws for decades. And since 2010, there's been a flurry of states that have passed right-to-work laws.

In those states, you have very similar outcomes. You have lower union membership. The workers in the public sector, their wages are below the wages of those workers who are doing similar jobs in a state in which these laws don't apply.

Will de-powering public-workers unions in this way help save taxpayers money? Will it help states balance their budgets?

The bond-rating agency Fitch [has] looked at this Janus case and they essentially say it's probably not going to have a real difference on public finance at all. It probably isn't going to reduce budgets by that much.

It's going to allow the government to do other things with the money, but it's not going to mean taxpayers are going to get a break. You've still got to teach all those people, you've still got to pay for the buildings, you've still got to clean the parks. It's just that you're going to pay all those people to do that less. The money can go to outside contractors, you can pay your supervisors more—it isn't quite clear what those other decisions are [going to be].

Do you expect this case to have indirect effects on workers that are covered by private-sector unions? How about workers who aren't covered by a union at all?

The decision only applies to public-sector workers, but if public-sector unionization goes down, then overall unionization falls and the strength of unions overall weakens. That would ultimately hurt even private-sector union workers.

Non-union workers are also affected because when union worker wages go down, so do non-union worker wages. The floor falls.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.