How SCOTUS’ ruling on labor unions in Janus vs. AFSCME could upend politics in Pennsylvania

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Mayor Kenney, right, speaks at a union rally outside Federal Court in Philadelphia, to protest the U.S. Supreme Court decision that public employees cannot be required to pay union dues.

Pennsylvania’s public-sector labor unions, which represent 6 percent of the state’s workers and spend tens of millions of dollars on political campaigns annually, could be substantially handicapped thanks to a blockbuster decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The nation’s highest court on Wednesday ruled, 5-4, that government employees who decline to join unions are not required to pay “fair share” fees to those labor groups that collectively bargain on their behalf. Republicans and conservative donors such as the Koch brothers have long sought this policy, hoping to cripple their opposition.

“Big loss for the coffers of the Democrats!” tweeted President Trump.

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion said that forcing non-union members to pay dues amounted to “unconstitutional exactions” that violated their First Amendment rights. Justice Elana Kagan, writing the dissent, cited a 1977 court precedent that said the fees did not violate the U.S. Constitution because they “could not go to any of the union’s political or ideological activities.”

The court’s ruling effectively makes the nation a so-called “right-to-work” zone for public-sector unions. It means unionized government workers looking for a boost in their paychecks, at least temporarily, may leave the organizations. The Democratic Party also might lose crucial campaign dollars from one of its most reliable institutional donors.

Or, some labor leaders think, unions could stay strong in the face of this setback — and perhaps even grow more powerful in the wake of it.

Pete Matthews, president of Philadelphia’s District Council 33, said his blue-collar municipal union spent more than a year asking members to sign cards pledging to remain. This is similar to how unions first organize a workplace. The effort has been so successful, he said, that he doubted the ruling would cause many of his members to flee.

But, he said, the Supreme Court’s ruling could mean that District Council 33 gives less money to candidates. If labor groups need to spend more time recruiting and retaining members, that leaves fewer hours in the day for politics.

“I’m quite sure it would have an impact,” he said.

Any fallout is likely to be felt most in the 2020 presidential election, political analysts said.

Janus ruling follows years of labor losses

The Supreme Court’s decision comes after America’s unions have suffered decades of decline. At their peak in the mid-1950s, one-third of workers were members of a union. In recent years, public-sector unions have represented a larger percentage of workers than private-sector ones — making this ruling even more significant for the future of organized labor.//

About 250 union members and supporters, including Mayor Kenney, staged a protest of the decision outside the Federal Court Building in Philadelphia.

Gabe Morgan, vice president of Services Employees International Union 32BJ, said the “vast majority” of his union’s members have signed cards promising to stay on as members and otherwise pledged their continued support. His group represents workers in city governments and school districts in Pennsylvania, as well as those in the private sector.

While conservatives have painted the Janus decision as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to end the Democratic Party” and unions, Morgan said, he doesn’t believe that will come to pass. To the contrary, he thinks their plans could backfire as workers feel increasingly under siege.

“They’ve now gone so far in these attacks,” he said. “We’ve seen our members, even Republican members, even Trump supporters, who are actually sending more money to the union PAC fund…

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