The U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Wednesday that public employees who don’t join unions can’t be required to pay for collective bargaining hit hard in Minnesota, a state whose Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party has long counted on organized labor as its most powerful ally.
The 5-4 ruling brought sharply different reactions, with Republican officials and conservative groups jubilant at what they called a victory for individual freedom and a blow to the power of unions in state politics. DFLers and labor leaders blasted the decision as a major setback for workers and decades of union organizing around workplace issues. They also said it’s not fair that employees opting out of union dues will continue to benefit from collective bargaining.
“This ruling is an attempt to silence working peoples’ voices,” said Mary C. Turner, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association.
The high court’s ruling is likely to mean an immediate blow to the budgets of organized labor groups, a key source of contributions to Democratic campaigns in Minnesota and across the country. Conservatives predicted that it would force labor groups to reconsider some of their political activities or risk that workers reconsider their membership.
“Imagine what will happen now that powerful government unions have to earn the support of employees,” said Kim Crockett, senior policy fellow and legal counsel for the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank in Golden Valley.
The court’s decision directly affects public workers who opted out of union membership but were required to pay “fair share” fees to help cover the cost of collective bargaining. Those fees amount to about 85 percent of full union dues. Crockett said the group estimates that about 10,000 public employees in Minnesota are “fair share employees” who will see their paychecks get bigger right away.
Crockett said the court’s ruling protects the First Amendment rights of those workers — and all other public employees — who previously had no choice but to contribute to unions that “have grown arrogant and very political.”
While leaders of the state’s biggest public unions were critical of the ruling, they also found room for optimism. Many pointed to recent membership gains, and they said large-scale challenges could backfire on those hoping to minimize labor’s influence.
The Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, which represents about 15,000 state workers, said a few people called Wednesday to cancel their membership — but that a significantly larger number called to sign up.
“I’ve never seen our members more active, more interested in our union than I have from the threat of a third party taking it away from them,” said Chet Jorgensen, the union’s president. “I think they’ve awakened a sleeping giant.”
In Minnesota, 15.2 percent of workers belonged to either a public-sector or private union in 2017. That’s considerably higher than the national average of 10.7 percent. The new ruling means public employers must immediately stop deducting union fees from the paychecks of workers who are not members.
The money collected in union dues is significant; Education Minnesota, which represents 90,000 teachers statewide, collects about $28.3 million in dues each year. (A full-time teacher pays $471 annually to Education Minnesota, another $248 to the union’s national affiliates, and additional local dues.) Before the ruling, the union represented about 5,000 “fair share” fee payers.
Major DFL contributors
Public-sector unions are major DFL contributors, providing financial backing and other support from thousands of members. The political action committee for Education Minnesota has spent about $2.2 million in political donations since 2016, mostly on DFL campaigns, making it one of the state’s leading donors.
The Center for the American Experiment has set up a website that Crockett said is meant to help union members, particularly teachers, understand their rights under the ruling. It is also putting up billboards around the Twin Cities to celebrate the ruling, reading: “Teachers’ Independence Day.” One will go up near the Minneapolis Convention Center, where the National Education Association will hold a conference this weekend.
Crockett was joined by other supporters of the ruling in calling for DFL Gov. Mark Dayton to immediately direct public employers to explain the ruling to workers.
Dayton called the court’s decision “appalling.” He suggested that the justices who joined the majority in the ruling were participating in “the kind of terrible ‘judicial activism’ which some justices profess to deplore.”
Linda Hoekman, a science teacher at Champlin Park High School, paid “fair share” fees rather than join the union and is now weighing her options. She finds it tough to sort out what benefits Education Minnesota provides her and other teachers.
“I guess I haven’t fully decided what I want to do,” Hoekman said. “I’m excited to see what opportunities the union puts forward, and if they’re the best choices for me, I’d love to keep working with them.”
Marty Momsen, a science teacher at Houston High School in southeastern Minnesota, said if the ruling results in weaker unions, teachers and schools could face serious consequences. He said he left a teaching job in Wisconsin because of that state’s efforts to restrict union activity — and found a much better working climate in Minnesota.
“It’s not a debate. You look at states that have strong unions, they exceed other states in terms of take-home pay, if they keep their teachers, health care is better, the standard of living is better,” Momsen said. “I think you’re going to say should people leave the unions and should unions weaken, we’re going to take advantage of that, wages will go down.”