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Judge: Supreme Court decision barring forced union fees doesn't rid unions of responsibility to represent all workers

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By Jonathan Bilyk | Nov 13, 2019

Illinois capitol building
Illinois State Capitol

Unions can’t use a recent anti-union Supreme Court decision to rid themselves of their responsibility under the law to represent all workers in a collective bargaining unit, whether or not those workers pay union dues, a federal judge has ruled.

On Nov. 12, U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman granted summary judgment to Illinois’ state government in a legal action brought by labor union the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, and Local 150 president James Sweeney. The litigation asked the court to declare unconstitutional state laws and rules requiring unions to represent and negotiate on behalf of all public workers in a so-called bargaining unit, if a union has been granted exclusive bargaining rights by the state.

The union had argued the Illinois law violates the constitutional speech rights of the union and of its dues-paying members.


James Sweeney

The lawsuit relied on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees. In that rule, the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of Mark Janus, a non-union former Illinois state worker, who argued state rules requiring non-union state employees to pay so-called agency fees to a union violated workers’ constitutional speech and association rights.

Unions had argued the fees were needed to prevent non-union workers from becoming “free riders,” taking advantage of union representation without paying the fees needed to offset the costs of the union services.

In the wake of the Janus decision, Local 150 and Sweeney filed suit, arguing the same constitutional standard that allowed Janus and other non-union workers to avoid paying union fees, also should invalidate state laws requiring unions to represent workers who refuse to pay fees.

The state of Illinois, through the Illinois Attorney General’s Office contested the lawsuit, asserting Illinois’ rules, under the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act, remained constitutional, despite the high court’s Janus decision.

After rejecting Illinois’ attempt to dismiss the lawsuit, Judge Coleman granted judgment in favor of the state.

Coleman particularly noted a recent decision from the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in another lawsuit involving Janus. Following his success at the Supreme Court, Janus had filed another action against the AFSCME union and the state, asking the court to order the union to refund at least some of the fees he had been forced to pay before the Supreme Court declared the agency fee scheme unconstitutional.

The Seventh Circuit refused to order such refunds, saying the union had collected them in “good faith,” relying on prior U.S. Supreme Court precedent and a state law which unions and all other parties had presumed to be legal and constitutional up to the point the Supreme Court ruled in Janus’ favor.

In that decision, however, the Seventh Circuit declared it believed the Supreme Court’s Janus decision had only ruled on one question: Whether unions could continue to use state law to extract fees from non-union public workers.

In her decision, Judge Coleman said that finding, in particular, dooms Local 150’s efforts to challenge the state rules regarding the unions’ exclusive bargaining rights and responsibilities.

Judge Coleman noted the Seventh Circuit ruled “even with payments of zero from objectors, the union still enjoys the power and attendant privileges of being the exclusive representative of an employee unit,” and “unions designated as exclusive representatives were (and still are) obligated to represent all employees, union members or not, ‘fairly, equitably, and in good faith.’”

Further, Judge Coleman pointed to text within the Supreme Court’s Janus decision itself, which specifically rejected the kinds of “free rider” concerns raised by Local 150 and other unions: “Avoiding free riders is not a compelling interest,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion.

“Therefore, Local 150’s argument that Illinois’ exclusive-bargaining-representative scheme is unconstitutional under Janus fails,” Coleman wrote.

The union is represented in the case by attorneys from its Local 150 Legal Department and from the Indiana, Illinois, Iowa Foundation for Fair Contracting, based in neighboring offices in suburban Countryside.

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Organizations in this Story

State of IllinoisInternational Union of Operating Engineers Local 150U.S. District Court for the Northern District of IllinoisU.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

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