A key piece of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's multifront effort to chip away at union influence in Illinois was dealt a blow Tuesday when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal law that allows government employee unions to collect fees from nonmembers.
One of Rauner's first acts after taking over last year was to try to stop such fees from being passed on to unions. The issue ended up in a lawsuit that's pending in federal court in Chicago.
A similar case in California got to the high court first. In a 4-4 split decision, the Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling that rejected an Orange County teacher's claim that her free-speech rights were violated by being forced to support the union through about $650 a year in fees.
The tie vote was a relief to unions, who had been bracing for an unfavorable ruling after oral arguments in January indicated that a majority of the justices were skeptical of the fair-share arrangement. The death of Justice Antonin Scalia last month left the court without a majority, leading to the split decision.
Asked about the ruling during a school visit in LeRoyin east-central Illinois, Rauner called it a "tragic decision by the court."
"It's a loss for freedom of speech and freedom of political expression in the United States, it's a loss for teachers, I think it's a loss for all government employees," Rauner said. "It was clear that Justice Scalia would have supported freedom of speech and political affiliation and that decision would have gone the other way, but the court was split 4-4 and therefore upheld the lower court."
Unions applauded the Supreme Court's split decision but warned that it was likely not the final word on the issue.
"There's no doubt that these same wealthy special interests will continue their attacks in this venue and others and attempt to use the courts to bring further challenges to the rights of workers," said Anders Lindall, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, the largest union for state workers in Illinois.
Illinois is one of about two-dozen states that requires its workers to pay "fair share" fees to public employee unions if they are not union members. The theory is that workers who are not part of a union still benefit from its services, such as negotiating new contracts and handling worker grievances, even if they don't support the union's political agenda. Fair-share fees allow the union to collect money from nonmembers to cover the cost of those services, but those dollars can't be spent on political activities such as campaign contributions.
Last year, Rauner issued an executive order that directed the state to stop passing fair-share fees on to unions, arguing that it's impossible to ensure that the fees aren't used for political activity because the unions directly negotiate with the government.
Anticipating legal blowback, Rauner also filed a federal lawsuit seeking to have his decision declared legal and hoping to bring the issue to the Supreme Court.
Rauner also had weighed in on the California case, filing a brief with the Supreme Court in which he contended that public sector union activities in Illinois can't be separated between political and nonpolitical.
"Even those union activities that are confined to collective bargaining have significant political implications," Rauner's lawyers wrote. "Enriched by contributions from members and nonmembers alike, public sector unions in Illinois, whose labor and management sit on the same side of the table, have negotiated wages and benefits that have unrealistically kept going up while the state economy has kept going down. The connection is hardly coincidental."
Rauner's attempt to withhold Illinois workers' fair-share fees was put on hold last year when a judge in St. Clair County ordered the state to keep passing the fees along while the matter continued to play out in court.
When Rauner tried to press the issue in federal court, a judge dismissed him from the case, saying Rauner lacked standing to challenge public unions in his official capacity because he had "no personal interest at stake." Three workers who also were contesting the payments were allowed to proceed with their own complaint, and Rauner on Tuesday said he hopes that case will bring the matter back to the high court.
"Our case is winding its way through the courts and it will get to the Supreme Court probably at some point in the future," Rauner said. "And we will just continue the fight for the freedom of political expression and the right of free speech for government employees. It's a fundamental issue."