The Supreme Court ruling Wednesday striking down requirements that public-sector employees covered by union contracts pay union fees even if they are not union members could have a dramatic impact in New York.
New York has the highest rate of government workers covered by union contracts — 73 percent — in the nation, according to a report in January from the Empire Center, a fiscally conservative public policy think tank based in Albany. That’s far above the national average of 39 percent.
Other findings of the report:
- Nearly every state and New York City government position that is legally eligible for union representation is covered by a union contract.
- All 61 city governments and 56 of New York’s 57 county governments outside New York City each have at least partially unionized workforces.
- The teachers in 683 of New York’s 689 school districts are unionized. Most school district support staff, such as custodians and cafeteria workers, are also often unionized.
The court ruled 5-4 in Janus v. AFSCME that public sector employees cannot be forced to pay what are known as “agency fees” if they are not members of a union, even if the union works on their behalf to improve their wages and benefits. The majority wrote that the fees violate “the free speech rights of nonmembers by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern.”
The Empire Center said government unions in New York together constitute a major industry in their own right and wield considerable influence on public policy. They annually collect at least $862 million in dues and fees from more than 1 million employees, according to the center.
Approximately 200,000 New York public employees who have opted not to join unions could now save more than $110 million a year in dues and fees, the center said. And other public-sector workers who joined unions only because they would have to pay union fees either way could now opt out of paying those fees, it said.
The center praised the ruling.
“This is a groundbreaking win for our state and local government employees,” said Tim Hoefer, the center’s executive director. “With today’s ruling, these workers can no longer be compelled to financially support unions whose political demands they don’t agree with.”
But union officials heavily criticized the ruling.
“It’s outrageous that the Supreme Court caved to greedy corporate CEOs and the wealthy instead of supporting the rights of hardworking Americans,” said Danny Donohue, president of the Civil Service Employees Association, one of the largest unions in the state, with about 300,000 members.
“Let me be clear. This case wasn’t about fairness or even free speech. It was just another scheme for the rich to get richer by destroying unions and silencing working people,” Donohue said. “I can tell you right now it’s not going to work. Our members won’t be fooled into giving up everything unions have fought so hard for.”
Gene Carroll, co-director of the Cornell Union Leadership Institute at Cornell University, said the ruling will weaken the ability of public-sector unions to negotiate for better wages and benefits and undermine the idea that “workers should have a voice in the workplace.”
He said it is only fair that workers who benefit from union representation should pay union dues or fees.
“This ruling undermines workers’ rights and it goes against the conservatives’ own principle that you shouldn’t be able to get something for nothing,” he said.
Carroll said some labor leaders believe the ruling could have a silver lining, however, because it will motivate unions to work harder to show workers that “paying dues is an investment in the union that is fighting on your behalf.”
Wayne Spence, president of the New York State Public Employees Federation, said the challenge to “agency fees” was backed by “anti-worker extremists” seeking to weaken unions. But Spence said the federation and other unions in the state anticipated the ruling and have already launched vigorous “member engagement campaigns” to show workers the benefits they get from union membership.
“We know when unions are strong, we have the power to raise wages, secure basic needs such as health care coverage and a dignified retirement, making life better for our families and our communities,” he said.