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What does Supreme Court union ruling mean for Minnesota?

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Supreme Court
Visitors line up outside the U.S. Supreme Court plaza before the court handed down decisions June 18, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images

The United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Wednesday that public employees who decline to join unions are not required to pay "fair share" fees to labor groups that collectively bargain on their behalf.

It was a huge setback for public-sector unions, rolling back a 40-year old court ruling that required basic fees to cover representation.

The decision won't have a major impact on states where union presence is weak, but in Minnesota, there are nearly two-dozen unions that represent hundreds of thousands of public employees.

What, exactly, did the Supreme Court rule?

At the heart of the ruling are what are known as "fair share" or "agency" fees. Under federal law, no one can be forced to join a union as a condition of employment, but since public workers are still covered by a collective bargaining unit, those who opted out had to pay a "fair share" fee instead of union dues. The fees covered the basic costs of that representation, unions argued, and prevented workers from "free riding," or benefiting from the union but not supporting it in any way.

Those basic collective fees were required after a 1977 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, but the court overturned that decision on Wednesday, siding with the plaintiff, Illinois union worker Mark Janus. He argued that his $45 per month agency fees would actually go to support Democratic union allies in their campaigns, which he does not support, violating his First Amendment rights.

Which unions in Minnesota are impacted by the ruling?

The ruling was narrowly focused on public-sector state and municipal union workers, like Janus, who is a member of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in Illinois. It does not include federal workers, such as postal service workers, or exclusively private sector union members.

In all, Minnesota had 411,000 union members in 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That includes public and private-sector unions, but labor experts say a large share, or roughly half of those members, are public sector workers. The unions include Education Minnesota, which represents teachers, AFSCME, the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees and Teamsters Local 320.

It also includes some public workers represented by the Minnesota Nurses Association, Minnesota School Employees Association and the Service Employees International Union.

How many of those members are "fair share" members?

It's hard to pin down exactly how many of the state's public-sector union employees opt to pay "fair share" fees instead of dues, mostly because it's not something the unions have to report.

Generally those numbers tend to be lower in Minnesota, said John Budd, a professor at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management who specializes in labor relations. For example, of Education Minnesota's 94,638 members, about 5 percent pay only "fair share" fees, according to spokesperson Megan Boldt.

Have the unions been preparing for this outcome?

Yes. Cases similar to this one have been slowly making their way through the courts for years, and with President Donald Trump's Supreme Court appointment, a conservative majority was likely to rule against the unions.

With that in mind, public sector unions in Minnesota have been working over the last several years to reach all of their "fair share" members and convince them to become full union members. Boldt said Education Minnesota has added 19 new bargaining units and membership has grown by 3,000 members in the past two-and-a-half years. "The state of our union is stronger than ever," she said. Union membership has gone up overall in the state, from 14.2 percent of wage and salary workers in the state in 2016 to 15.2 percent in 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Peter Rachleff, a retired professor of labor and management at Macalester College, said the expected ruling has resulted in an "interesting shift" in the internal culture of most unions. "They are not only about getting those people who have not joined in the past to join, but also positioning those who have not joined in the past to become member organizers to take some responsibility in the organization," he said.

But could the number of people who opt out grow because of the ruling?

Potentially, yes. Stephen Befort, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, said under what's called the "duty of fair representation," unions have to represent everyone in the bargaining unit, whether they pay dues and fees.

"Some members are likely to say, 'Well, I get the same services, the same bargaining representation and the same benefits, but I don't have to pay dues,'" he said. The ruling will result in immediate loss of funds for the unions, and that could grow. "It's pretty hard to do more with less."

Budd also noted that the publicity of the case alone could prompt some union members, who never considered opting out before, to do so, especially as the same conservative groups that pushed the case forward start campaigning for workers to stop paying dues.

"This case could bring a lot of publicity to the issue," Budd said. "Even though the fraction of fair share members is low now, it has the potential to grow."