Imagine if you moved to a new lakeside community, and they forced you to pay about 85% of its association dues even if you had no interest in joining their association, taking part in their activities, or using its facilities. This is the kind of treatment that exhausted Susan Fischer after three decades and finally compelled her to file a federal class action lawsuit against New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), and the Township of Ocean Education Association. Both Susan Fischer and Jeanette Speck claim that the NJEA has disregarded the recent U.S. Supreme Court Janus ruling that prohibits unions from assessing dues if an employee resigns or declines to join the union. In a case whose outcome may have widespread implications for how unions operate across the country, opinions remain sharply divided, unsurprisingly, along political lines.
Janus vs. AFSCME
The touchstone for this legal action is the June 2018 Supreme Court case which involved a man named Mark Janus who sued his union, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). In Janus vs. AFSCME, Mr. Janus contended that he didn’t support the union’s political activities and, therefore, shouldn’t have to fund them with his union dues. AFSCME, on the other hand, argued that since its efforts also supported nonunion workers, they should pay some union dues. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Janus, noting that nonunion workers shouldn’t be coerced into paying dues to public sector unions and could leave the union whenever they choose.
Considering this ruling, Monmouth County New Jersey teacher Sue Fischer should have been free to opt out of her union and cease paying dues. She claims that the NJEA doesn’t represent her interests and, therefore, shouldn’t have the power to force her to pay dues.
Workplace Democracy Enhancement Act
Nevertheless, things became complicated when, just prior to the June SCOTUS ruling, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy passed the Workplace Democracy Enhancement Act (WDEA), an amendment which gives employees only a 10-day window following the anniversary of their employment in which to drop out of their union. Critics argue that this amendment means that employees have only 10 days out of 365 in which they can exercise their Janus rights.
Ocean Township Teachers File Federal Class Action Lawsuit
Consequently, both teachers from Monmouth County filed their lawsuit when New Jersey officials refused to allow them to withdraw from the union because they didn’t make their request within the 10-day window. Their suit challenges the constitutionality of the New Jersey law under the Janus ruling. They maintain that mandatory union membership without employee consent violates the free speech rights of government workers granted by the First Amendment.
Governor Cuomo Signs Legislation to Protect Unions
Coincidentally, New Jersey’s more famous neighbor, New York, also signed a similar bill a few months earlier in April of 2018 which was designed to protect the unions. The most interesting part of the bill may not have been what was in it but what it was intended to forestall. Governor Cuomo signed the bill in anticipation of a negative ruling in the pending (at the time) Supreme Court case of Janus vs. AFSCME. Clearly, the governor and powerful union lobbyists wished to keep the federal government from stripping away any of the unions’ power in the most heavily unionized state in the country.
National Right to Work Foundation
In an interesting bit of symmetry, National Right to Work Foundation lawyers won the Janus case, which has brought a groundswell of attention around right-to-work laws. What some people see as an attempt to undermine unions and organized labor, others see as hopeful step towards establishing rights for the worker guaranteed by our Constitution.
Right-to-Work Laws in New Jersey
Simply put, right-to-work laws forbid an employer from firing a rejecting a worker for declining to join a union. In states with a heavy union presence such as New York and New Jersey, recent actions taken by their respective Democratic governors to shore up the unions show how these issues often fall along party lines. In New Jersey’s heavy tax climate, however, many people feel that instituting right-to-work laws would provide a nice boost for the economy and keep workers and employers from going to states with less restrictive employment and labor laws. Unlike New Jersey’s governor, they see right-to-work as an integral part of a push for broader economic reform with the power to transform the state’s fiscal health.
Federal vs. State
Regardless of the outcome in the teachers’ lawsuit against the NJEA, the Janus precedent has already led to increased litigation around the country against unions. For example, Washington, California, and Minnesota have all brought cases before the courts in the wake of Janus decision. In an intriguing intersection of state and federal statutes, the SCOTUS decision has pitted state legislators against federal precedent in power grabs that now reverberate across the country.
Future for Unions
Clearly, this case has expanded beyond the plight of a few New Jersey teachers and the education sector. Not only does it highlight how much state legislators are in thrall to powerful union bosses, but it may even determine to what degree states must follow the United States Constitution. While many people view the unions as the workers’ bulwark against all-powerful management and wealthy groups who often take advantage of laborers, others see them as political entities run amok with workers’ hard-earned cash who don’t accurately represent their interests. The Janus decision and the subsequent cases demonstrate that heavily unionized states may be a concept past their prime and a new attitude towards workers’ rights may be gaining a foothold which may cause a seismic shift in the way unions do business in the future.