Skip to main content

Nurses Union Decries Supreme Court Decision on Public-Sector Unions

Analysis  |  By Steven Porter  
   June 27, 2018

The court ruled 5-4 on Wednesday that non-union public employees cannot be compelled to pay union fees, a decision that could dramatically impact union power.

In a major decision Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned its own longstanding precedent and ruled that public-sector unions cannot compel non-union workers to pay agency fees.

The court's 5-4 majority found that requiring such payments violates the First Amendment rights of public employees who may object to a union's political views or advocacy.

The decision is likely to have a significant and far-reaching impact on the political power unions wield, potentially cutting off a significant amount of funding for organizations that typically support Democratic candidates for public office, as The Wall Street Journal reported.

Bonnie Castillo, RN, executive director of the National Nurses United union, said in a statement Wednesday that those who pushed this lawsuit to the high court have an agenda to remove any and all regulations "that they see as an impediment to their profits and authoritarian power."

In the same statement, public-union nurses argued Wednesday's decision could undermine patient safety and access to healthcare:

  • Martese Chism, a nurse at John H. Stroger Hospital in Chicago: "Budget cuts frequently threaten to close services that the community desperately needs. … When the system threatened to close pediatric services at Stroger, we came together with other public sector unions at County and fought to keep pediatrics open."
  • Kimberly Amini, RN, a public health nurse in San Bernardino County, California: "With our communities facing a serious opioid crisis, and public health emergencies, patients count on us to act on their behalf when care conditions are eroded, when staffing is unsafe, when decisions are based on budget goals, not patient need. That's what this ruling threatens."
  • Maureen Dugan, RN, who works at the University of California San Francisco: "It's the union that brings many safety laws in legislation and public regulatory protections. … The attack on our union is an attack on our patients."  

One of the reasons why this case is so significant is the fact that more than one-third of government workers are unionized, while less than 7% of the private workforce is in a union, as NPR reported.

The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)—the union to which the plaintiff in this case, Mark Janus, would have been required to pay the fees—conducted a survey and found that 15% of employees would stop paying if the fees were no longer mandatory, as NPR reported.

With backing from the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, Janus successfully argued that his $45-monthly fee to AFSCME was unconstitutional. There's little difference, Janus reasoned, between requiring that payment and requiring employees to fund political lobbying groups, as CNBC reported.

Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito affirmed Janus' argument.

"Compelling individuals to mouth support for views they find objectionable violates that cardinal constitutional command, and in most contexts, any such effort would be universally condemned," Alito wrote.

The rationale behind the decision does not immediately pose a threat to unions in the private sector, where businesses have more latitude to impose conditions of employment that may compel or prohibit speech, as the Journal reported.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that the decision applies to "agency fees" paid by non-members, not to "membership dues."

Steven Porter is an associate content manager and Strategy editor for HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.

Tagged Under:

Get the latest on healthcare leadership in your inbox.