"This case is 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", said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation for State, County and Municipal Employees, AFSCME, the union Janus is suing.
In the 1970s, the Supreme Court in a case called Abood said opponents of unions don't have to pay the purely political part of union dues, but do have to continue paying the "fair share" portion.
Public sector union officials refer to mandatory fees as "fair share" fees because the money pays for the cost of collective bargaining and pursuing grievances.
The case now before the high court began two years ago when Republican Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, then newly elected, filed a suit in federal court contending that the union fees paid by state employees were unconstitutional. In 2016, a suit brought by California teachers was nearly universally expected to produce a full-on reversal of the 1977 holding, but the death of Justice Antonin Scalia left the Court deadlocked 4-4 on the case, leaving a circuit court decision in favor of the union in place. The last thing the Democrats want is for public employees to be liberated to support the causes and politicians they believe in, rather than the ones the corrupt union selects.
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AFSCME argues that the Abood precedent should be maintained, because it prevents "free riders" from getting the benefits of union contracts without paying for them. A tied decision defaults to the lower courts, which ruled against the lawsuit.
California union leaders criticized the court's decision to take the new case.
The high court previous year seemed poised to reverse the 1977 precedent when it agreed to hear a challenge by a group of California public school teachers.
About half of all union members now work for federal, state and local governments, and many are in states like Illinois, New York, and California that are largely Democratic and seen as friendly toward unions.
Public employee unions are obligated to represent an entire unit of similarly situated workers, including nonmembers.
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As recently as this year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave the Montreal-based firm another $1.5 billion . Boeing's complaint against Bombardier drew a backlash even before Tuesday's decision.
But President Donald Trump's conservative pick, Justice Neil Gorsuch, has since filled the vacant seat, and he is expected to bring the long-awaited fifth conservative vote that could strike a death blow to public-employee unions.
Under the agency fee system, workers who do not join the union must pay a fee equal to union dues.
Court observers expect a decision sometime before the court adjourns in June 2018.
Janus doesn't think AFSCME is working for the good of the IL government, he wrote in the Chicago Tribune a year ago.
A ruling allowing workers to refuse to pay the fees would be the culmination of a decades-long campaign by conservative groups aimed at weakening unions that represent public employees.
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The NEA has about 87,000 fee-payers. Union membership in the public sector has generally been much higher than in private industry. In this case the union collects dues only from members who join voluntarily, and crucially also represents only members.