The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday delivered a potentially serious blow to public-sector unions in a case with social-justice implications that a Baptist attorney with three decades experience representing organized labor says is below the public radar screen of most progressive Christians.
Chris Sanders, a deacon at Cooperative Baptist Fellowship-affiliated Ridgewood Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., called yesterday’s 5-4 ruling that unions can no longer charge non-members for benefits they receive through collective bargaining “the biggest existential threat to organized labor in decades.”
“Within two years, progressives across America will ask: ‘Whatever happened to the unions? Where are they?’” predicted Sanders, a 1985 master-of-divinity graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
The majority opinion, written by Associate Justice Samuel Alito, determined that the Supreme Court erred in 1971 when it ruled a government entity could require public employees to pay a fair share of the cost that a union incurs when negotiating on their behalf over terms of employment.
Mark Janus, a child support specialist employed by the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, refused to join the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 31, because he opposed many of the public policy positions the union advocates.
Janus also objected to being assessed “agency fees” reimbursing the union as a condition of his employment. He sued the union in 2016, claiming a state law compelling state employees to pay agency fees to an exclusive representative violated his First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
A district court dismissed the case, relying on precedent in the 1971 Supreme Court decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. In that case a unanimous court ruled that open union shops allowed in the private sector are also legal in public-sector jobs, as long as the fees charged to non-members are for expenses related to collective bargaining services and not political or ideological activities of the union to which non-members might object.
The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision, leading to this week’s ruling by the Supreme Court’s conservative majority that Abood was wrongly decided and must be overturned.
In a dissenting opinion joined by three other liberal justices, Associate Justice Elena Kagan criticized the majority for “turning the First Amendment into a sword, and using it against workaday economic and regulatory policy.”
Kagan, an Obama nominee to the court, said for four decades the law “struck a stable balance between public employees’ First Amendment rights and government entities’ interests in running their workforces as they thought proper.”
Kagan said this week’s decision “will have large-scale consequences.”
“Public employee unions will lose a secure source of financial support,” she predicted. “State and local governments that thought fair-share provisions furthered their interests will need to find new ways of managing their workforces. Across the country, the relationships of public employees and employers will alter in both predictable and wholly unexpected ways.”
Sanders, a graduate of Georgetown College in Kentucky, enrolled in seminary before ever considering a career in law. He entered Southern Seminary with thoughts of becoming a minister, but by the time he graduated — with the labor movement in full swing — he decided practicing law was a better fit for his style of advocacy than the pulpit.
After earning his law degree from the University of Louisville in 1988, Sanders worked with a law firm that represented labor unions. In the 2000s he joined a union, deepening his appreciation for the intricate connection between politics, law and social justice. He now operates his own office, specializing in cases involving employment law and class-action lawsuits.
Sanders said in an article published June 28 by EthicsDaily.com that people of faith should care about labor rights in part because unions fight poverty, a major concern of the religious left.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a labor leader, in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
“The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress,” King wrote. “Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old age pensions, government relief for the destitute, and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life.”
In the past, it was common for church leaders to align with blue collar workers to advocate for human rights. Today more union members work in public sector jobs, such as education, than in private business, and public opinion is shifting.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a non-profit law firm specializing in First Amendment cases, described open-shop arrangements stricken down by the Supreme Court as “coercion laundering.”
“When a person uses third parties as intermediaries to mask the source of illicit funds, we call it money laundering,” Becket lawyers said in a friend-of-the-court brief last December. “When government uses third parties as intermediaries to mask the source of coercion, we can call it coercion laundering.”
“The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old age pensions, government relief for the destitute, and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life.”
The American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative Christian organization founded by televangelist Pat Robertson in the 1990s to counter the ACLU, said government coercion of agency fees unconstitutionally forces employees to support causes they do not wish to support, violating “fundamental notions of liberty under the First Amendment.”
The Christian Educators Association International said the ruling is good news for conservative Christians who work in public education but are opposed to teacher unions funding liberal causes like Planned Parenthood.
The conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation said lost clout and money will make it harder for teacher unions to lobby against vouchers and other school-choice measures.
“The unions have long pushed back against any sort of school choice efforts, even charter schools,” the Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke told NPR. “Unions are going to have fewer dollars to push back against long-overdue education reforms. They’ll have to make some tough decisions.”
Justice Kagan said “there is no sugarcoating” the June 27 opinion.
“The majority overthrows a decision entrenched in this nation’s law — and in its economic life — for over 40 years,” Kagan wrote. “As a result, it prevents the American people, acting through their state and local officials, from making important choices about workplace governance. And it does so by weaponizing the First Amendment, in a way that unleashes judges, now and in the future, to intervene in economic and regulatory policy.”
Jobs With Justice, a coalition supporting worker rights and a fair economy, also condemned the ruling.
“Today’s ruling continues to reaffirm that a handful of greedy CEOs can rig the rules of the economy and our democracy in their favor,” Jobs With Justice Executive Director Sarita Gupta said in a statement. “Given the extreme concentration of wealth and power in this country, we should be making it easier and not harder for working people to join together to improve their jobs and their livelihoods.”
Interfaith Worker Justice, a national network founded by religious and workers’ rights activist Kim Bobo in 1996 and famous early on for its criticism of employment practices by corporate giant Walmart, called the decision “a huge blow to millions of workers.”
“Today, the U.S. Supreme Court compromised one of our fundamental rights as working people when it ruled that government workers who choose not to join a union cannot be charged for the cost of collective bargaining,” said Julia Medrano, director of public policy for Interfaith Worker Justice.
Medrano said the ruling invalidates the laws of 23 states and nullifies the wording in thousands of union contracts across the country. “The effects of this decision will be felt far beyond the 6.8 million workers who are directly affected,” she said.