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Supreme Court Rules Against Mandatory Union Dues For Public Employees


Another morning and another big decision from the U.S. Supreme Court. The court has ruled this morning that public sector unions are no longer allowed to compel workers to pay dues. This represents a blow to organized labor. And let's bring in the voice we always turn to when there's a big Supreme Court decision. It's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg, who's at the court.

Nina, good morning.


GREENE: OK. So remind us what was at the heart of this particular case. And how did the majority rule here?

TOTENBERG: Well, in 1977 - 41 years ago - the Supreme Court declared that when public employees vote to affiliate with a union, state and local governments can require those who don't join the union - because you don't have to join the union - but you can be required to pay partial fees to help cover the costs of negotiating and administering the contract that the non-union members benefit from. By law, they get the same raises, the same benefits. Twenty-two states currently have such fair-share arrangements. Twenty-eight do not.

Conservative activists and union opponents have long hated that decision. And today, they succeeded in their drive to get it reversed. Justice Samuel Alito has written every decision for the past six years leading up to this moment. And today he said free riders are not free but captive riders. They don't want to be part of the trip at all. But collective bargaining, he said, is not a private arrangement. It affects many public questions - whether there should be cuts in public services or increases in taxes, whether teachers get tenure or not. And the sky will not fall, he said, for overruling this decision, which is simply too wrong to leave on the books.

GREENE: OK. So one argument was that people who are not in the union but benefiting are free riders and should pay something. The other argument, which Alito seems to be making, is that you shouldn't be forced to support a union that, you know, influences decisions over public policy. That's essentially what was at stake here?

TOTENBERG: Right. He's saying that's compelled speech. And that violates the First Amendment. And Justice Elena Kagan - this was a 5-4 decision...

GREENE: Another one.

TOTENBERG: Another one. Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the dissenters, castigated the majority for overruling a decision it simply didn't like and cited - and using none of the reasons that courts usually use to overrule a precedent. Instead, she said, the court had weaponized the First Amendment, turned it into a sword to make sure that black-robed judges at every turn would be overseeing the government regulation of health care, securities trading, you name it.

Until now, she said, we have differentiated between workplace regulation, which we approved of, and public speech. Collective bargaining, she said, is clearly workplace regulation. And there's an ongoing debate as to whether states and the local governments wanted to have these fair-share agreements. Twenty-two states have them. Twenty-eight do not. Instead, she said, the Supreme Court had put its thumb on the scale and made sure that the case would go in one direction and that the results would be enormous, that thousands of contracts would be voided now. Millions of workers' lives would be affected.

GREENE: Wow. So it sounds like the consequences could be huge even though we're just talking about 22 states here.


GREENE: All right. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg talking to us about yet another big decision from the Supreme Court this morning, this one dealing with public sector unions and whether or not they're able to compel workers to pay dues. The court says they are not.

Nina, thanks a lot. We appreciate it.

TOTENBERG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg
Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.
David Greene
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.