The Supreme Court on Wednesday issued a decision moving away from 41 years of precedent by ruling that labor unions cannot charge fees to non-members. The Court’s opinion in Janus v. AFSCME overruled a 1977 decision that said such fees were permissible if they were limited to covering collective bargaining efforts from which the workers benefited. It was a 5-4 decision, and in her dissent, Justice Elena Kagan said this decision will have “large-scale consequences.”
Kagan emphasized the long-standing precedent in this issue, blasting the majority for ignoring the Court’s prior ruling.
“Rarely if ever has the Court overruled a decision—let alone one of this import—with so little regard for the usual principles of stare decisis,” she wrote. “[J]udicial disruption does not get any greater than what the Court does today.”
Kagan claimed that there was no good reason to upend a legal framework, under which there are laws in 20 states that “underpin thousands of ongoing contracts involving millions of employees.”
The Court’s majority held that the 1977 case of Abood v. Detroit Bd. of Educ. was wrong to allow “agency fees” that amounted to a percentage of union membership dues in order to cover costs of activities meant to benefit and represent workers, even non-members, because those not a part of the union may disagree with how they’re being represented.
Kagan’s dissent–which was joined by Justices Sotomayor, Ginsburg, and Breyer–disagreed, saying that Abood struck an appropriate balance between the interests of public employers who want a peaceful method of handling labor relations, and private employees’ freedom of expression. The dissent also recognized how fees are necessary in order for unions to effectively operate.
The law, Kagan noted, required unions to act in the best interest of all workers, not just members, during collective bargaining, and cannot give preferential treatment to members.
Most importantly, Kagan argued, the country’s reliance on the standard established in Abood outweighs what she feels is the majority’s weak and incorrect argument in overturning it.
“The Court today wreaks havoc on entrenched legislative and contractual arrangements.”
[Image via Mark Wilson/Getty Images]