CHICAGO — The U.S. Supreme Court will take up an Illinois case originally brought by Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner that challenges the practice of government employee unions collecting fees from nonmembers, a question the court deadlocked over last year.
In one of his first acts in office, the Republican governor attempted to halt the passing along of the union fees in order to invite a legal challenge of the practice. The Supreme Court on Thursday agreed to consider the lawsuit that resulted.
A similar case out of California was already in the legal pipeline when Rauner acted in 2015. By the time it was decided, the Supreme Court was short one member following the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. The court issued a 4-4 split decision that left the existing system intact.
Now with the appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch, the court’s ruling in the Illinois case could deal a major blow to public-sector unions nationwide if he sides with the conservative justices who were in favor of doing away with the unions’ system.
The “fair share” fees at issue in the case are a source of funding for unions. The unions negotiate new contracts and handle grievances on behalf of all workers within a bargaining unit, not just those who are members of the union. The fees help pay for those efforts.
Illinois is one of about two dozen states that requires its workers to pay fair share fees to public employee unions if they are not union members. The thinking is that workers who are not part of a union still benefit from its services, even if they don’t support the union’s political agenda. Unions are not allowed to spend fair share fees on political activities such as campaign contributions.
Rauner contends the fair share system violates free speech and workers should not have to support unions they don’t want to belong to. He also has questioned the restrictions on using fair share money for political purposes, saying it’s impossible to separate political activities because public-sector unions negotiate directly with the government.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the largest public employee union in Illinois and the one at the center of the lawsuit, called the case “yet another example of corporate interests using their power and influence to launch a political attack on working people and rig the rules of the economy in their own favor.”
“When working people are able to join strong unions, they have the strength in numbers they need to fight for the freedoms they deserve, like access to quality health care, retirement security and time off work to care for a loved one,” AFSCME President Lee Saunders said in a statement. “The merits of the case, and 40 years of Supreme Court precedent and sound law, are on our side. We look forward to the Supreme Court honoring its earlier rulings.”