WASHINGTON – A landmark organized labor case set for a U.S. Supreme Court hearing on Monday could have far-reaching implications for public sector workers in New Mexico and around the country as the court decides whether public sector unions can force non-members to pay dues.
The Supreme Court case – Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31 – could affect more than 5 million government workers in 24 states, including New Mexico, and the District of Columbia. It could also affect the financial health of the unions, which are significant supporters of Democratic candidates and causes.
A pro-labor rally in Albuquerque – dubbed the “Working People’s Day of Action” – is scheduled from 4 to 6:30 p.m. in Nob Hill at East Central and Amherst. Pro-union rallies will also be held Saturday in major cities across the country, including New York, Boston and Los Angeles.
In the Janus case, the U.S. Supreme Court is being asked to jettison a 41-year-old ruling that allows states to require government employees who don’t want to be union members to pay for their share of activities the union undertakes on behalf of all workers, not just its members. These “fair share” fees cover the costs of collective bargaining and grievance procedures to deal with workplace complaints.
Employees who don’t join the union do not have to pay for the unions’ political activities, which are paid through a separate, voluntary fund.
Conservative anti-union interests are backing an Illinois government employee who says that being forced to pay anything at all violates his First Amendment speech rights.
“I’m not against unions,” said the employee, 65-year-old Mark Janus, who is represented by AFSCME Council 31. “I don’t oppose the right of workers to organize. But the right to say ‘no’ to unions is just as important as the right to say ‘yes.’ ”
Janus said he opposes his union’s fight for wage and benefit increases when his own state is “in pretty terrible financial condition right now.”
The Janus case is widely expected to break against AFSCME because the Supreme Court’s newest member, conservative Neil Gorsuch, could tip what had previously been a 4-4 deadlocked court against the unions. Oral arguments will be heard Monday, and a court decision is expected later this spring.
In New Mexico, about 52,000 were union members in 2017, accounting for 6.7 percent of the state’s total workforce, both in private and public sectors, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 37,000 of those 52,000 union members belong to public sector unions. Unionstats.com, which tracks organized labor trends, reports that 22.6 percent of New Mexico’s public employees are union members.
New Mexico’s overall union membership has risen in recent years, though the state is still less unionized than the national average.
Carter Bundy, political and legislative director for AFSCME New Mexico, said so-called right-to-work policies that allow workers to opt out of joining a union or paying its dues is bad employment policy for the state.
“Right to work is wrong for the economy and wrong for workers, not just union workers but other workers as well,” Bundy said. “When these union-busting decisions come down, it negatively impacts wages, health care, retirement security and workplace safety for workers, whether you are in a union or not. That’s because unions help raise the standard for all of those things in any state.”
Paul Gessing, president of the libertarian Rio Grande Foundation in New Mexico, said the ability to refuse paying union dues is tantamount to free speech.
“I don’t consider this to be an anti-union case as our friends on the left do,” Gessing said. “The idea is that any organization that wants me to be a member should have to convince me to be a member and not access my paycheck – my money – before I get to access it.”
Gessing said public sector unions consistently aim to expand government, something the Rio Grande Foundation opposes. He also said that “government employee unions are among the strongest interest groups in New Mexico.”
“When it comes to government unions, they have one incentive, and that’s to grow government and increase their membership and member dues,” Gessing said.
Carter said that regardless of what happens in the Supreme Court case, New Mexico’s public sector unions will continue their fight.
“For the most part, we have seen a lot of enthusiasm for the union in response to these attacks, and we think employees in our bargaining unit and in other AFSCME bargaining units understand the importance of this case,” Bundy said. “We’ve been very strong here in New Mexico, and we’ve had a lot of success in defending worker rights and even expanding them in some cases.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.