The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in a 5-4 decision that public sector union employees can choose not to pay union dues or fees, a move that could damage union finances and limit their political clout.
In Pennsylvania, and nationally, teachers unions could bear the brunt of the court’s ruling.
There are 142,374 active members of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. The number balloons to 180,371 when counting retirees, substitutes, and other smaller categories of members.
Those numbers make PSEA one of the Commonwealth’s largest union bulwarks. Its active members represent roughly one fifth of the state’s estimated 665,000 union workers, both public and private sector.
PSEA represents another 6,380 employees who have opted out of full union membership and instead pay a lower “fair share” fee. The Supreme Court decision disallows those fees, meaning public sector employees can now decide to pay nothing to the union that represents them.
The American Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, has another 25,642 active members, and 1,948 employees paying a “fair share” amount.
Conservative groups cheered the decision as a triumph for free speech.
Lead plaintiff Mark Janus, who works for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, argued that public employees shouldn’t have to contribute to unions that lobby for politicians or policies that they oppose.
I’m thrilled that the Supreme Court has restored not only my First Amendment rights, but the rights of millions of other government workers across the country,” said Janus, in a statement. “So many of us have been forced to pay for political speech and policy positions with which we disagree, just so we can keep our jobs.”
Union backers say the decision will allow some public sector employees to benefit from the wages and conditions their unions negotiate without paying for the cost of that work.
“The decision deprives unions of any financial support from non-members who nonetheless benefit from union representation and collective bargaining to improve wages, benefits, and working conditions,” said Keystone Research Center Executive Director Stephen Herzenberg and Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center Director Marc Stier in a joint statement.
The open question is how much this decision will handcuff labor unions or reduce their substantial political clout.
Moving forward, public employees such as teachers will have to opt in to union dues. For instance, PSEA teachers contribute about $800 a year in dues, according to the union.
If enough members choose not to pay, it could hamper the union’s ability to organize and limit the time and money it can spend on political causes. Teachers unions typically back Democratic candidates for office, and contributed significantly to Governor Tom Wolf’s 2014 election campaign. They’ve also lobbied consistently in Harrisburg for increased state education funding, a deemphasis on standardized testing, and limitations on school choice initiatives.
In fiscal year 2017, PSEA spent $2.8 million on political activities and lobbying, according to reports filed with the U.S. Department of Labor.