Two U.S. Supreme Court rulings on June 27 that wrapped the court’s current case calendar addressed labor relations and water rights issues with construction sector impact. Its 5-4 decision in Janus v. AFSCME that public-sector employees can’t be forced to pay “fair-share fees” to unions could affect industry professionals represented by labor groups in 22 states.

The ruling found that the fees violate “free speech rights of nonmembers by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern.”

In the other decision, the court opted to have a special master re-examine a decades-long water-rights spat between Georgia and Florida, leaving in limbo a case that could affect future development in Atlanta.

Freedom of Speech

In Janus, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) argued that fees paid by state or municipal employees for representation cover only costs of collective bargaining and not political activity. Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) said the ruling in the case brought by state employee Mark Janus “restores the freedom of speech and freedom of association previously denied those employees … [and] is a victory for … taxpayers.”

“We just think It’s a terrible decision,” says Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, a federation of 14 craft unions. “There are real costs in administering collective bargaining and somebody has to pay those costs. And there was a fair and equitable system set up. The complaints of First Amendment rights, for the most part, were walled off, so it was a non-issue. It was an ideological battle that’s gone on for a couple dozen years by ideologues who wanted to take working voices out of the political playing field.”

Officials from unions facing impacts say they have been gearing up for the expected decision and that membership is rising. 

Among them is the National Association of State Highway and Transportation Unions, a coalition of 38 U.S. unions and affiliates that represents transportation engineers and related workers. One of its unions, Professional Engineers in California Government (PECG), which has more than 10,000 members who work in state agencies such as the California Dept. of Transportation, has urged them for months to retain membership.

It has anticipated the ruling by a court that this year included new conservative jurist Neil Gorsuch, says executive director Ted Toppin.

States now must create a member “opt-in” process. “Obviously the Janus decision wasn’t a surprise,” he said. “Our campaign has been built on that PECG delivers.”

Toppin said PECG’s opt-in planning began in 2016 when a similar challenge by a California teacher deadlocked in the high court with the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Toppin said membership has risen since. “California has a population that knows unions are a powerful force to defend the middle class,” he said.

Paul Shearon, president-elect of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which represents 80,000 public and private employees in North America such as building inspectors and auditors—including 25,000 in government—called the case politically motivated and designed to weaken union bargaining power. 

In addition to negotiating salaries and benefits, the group lobbies for legislation that impacts state revenue such as Medicare funding and required state taxes on internet purchases.

More members

The group expects some immediate loss of fee-generated revenue but also sees a rise in membership, Shearon says. “People have a right to representation.”

Michael Sturino, CEO of the Illinois Road and Transportation Builders Association, says many of its union members worry about what the ruling could mean if a similar private-employee union case were to come before the court, which could by then include another new conservative member, U.S. appellate court judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, who was nominated by President Donald Trump on July 9 to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy.

“They’re quite upset with the holding,” Sturino says of those association members. “They understand it could have implications,” adding that some “are taking steps to inoculate themselves” from any far-reaching impacts.

In the water-rights case that also had a 5-4 majority opinion, the court ordered special master Ralph Lancaster to revisit his 2017 analysis of measures needed to be taken by Georgia in its use of water from the Apalachicola-Flint-Chattahoochee river basin, which Florida charges has caused it ecological and economic harm.