A federal judge ruled in favor of two of the state's largest public-sector unions on Friday, rejecting an effort to force them to return decades worth of collective bargaining dues from nonunion members.

Several current and former public school employees and a MnDOT worker sought to recover past dues from Education Minnesota, the state's largest teachers union, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 5 (AFSCME).

They filed their lawsuit after a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled workers who don't join their employee unions can't be required to pay fair-share dues, or those used for collective bargaining and contract administration. Those fees amount to about 85% of full union dues.

The lawsuit is part of a national effort that's trying to force public-sector unions in different states to refund hundreds of millions of dollars in fees, which would deliver an immediate blow to union budgets and hurt their ability to financially back the campaigns of Democratic allies. The Education Minnesota political action committee reported spending more than $3.1 million in the 2020 election year, while AFSCME Council 5's campaign arm spent $630,000 last year.

"This really is about public employees," said Doug Seaton, a Golden Valley attorney representing the plaintiffs. "These public employees have a right to make their own decisions about who they support and who they don't and what words they want to be mouthed on their behalf."

For decades, Minnesota unions had been operating under state law and a 1977 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found public-sector employers and unions could compel employees to contribute to a union's collective bargaining costs even if the employee refused to join the union. But groups argued that requirement violated the employee's First Amendment rights, because any money that went to a union could be used for campaign purposes to support Democratic candidates.

After the 2018 ruling, Education Minnesota and other unions said they stopped collecting dues from anyone who was a nonunion member.

But Shakopee schools education coordinator Mary Dee Buros testified that before then, she did not know that she had a choice between joining the union and paying full membership dues or declining to join the union and paying fair-share fees. She and others sought retroactive return of fees collected before the ruling.

But U.S. District Court Judge Susan Nelson sided with the unions, who argued they were operating under state laws and past court rulings when they collected nonmember union dues.

"There is no evidence in the record indicating that the Education Minnesota Defendants acted with malice, with the knowledge that PELRA [Public Employment Labor Relations Act] was unconstitutional, or otherwise acted in bad faith," reads the ruling.

Seaton said he plans to appeal the decision. Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said they anticipate appeals but called the effort a "coordinated, but failing, strategy to punish unions for doing good work for their members."

"We anticipate this case, and similar cases around the country, will be appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court with the goal of getting a ruling that would financially cripple the union movement in the United States," she said. "Our union is ready to stand with other unions of working people to make our case in any courtroom."

Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042

Twitter: @bbierschbach