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article imageUS Supreme Court hears case critical to future of unions

By S├ębastien BLANC (AFP)     Feb 26, 2018 in World

An Illinois public sector worker could soon be responsible for one of the biggest setbacks in decades to the already declining US labor union movement.

Mark Janus's battle to avoid union dues he says he shouldn't be charged as a non-member on Monday reached the Supreme Court, which is seen as likely to overturn precedent in a case with nationwide ramifications for millions of workers.

"It's about my rights," the child care specialist told the libertarian blog Reason ahead of the case.

"My right to say 'no' is at least as important as my right to say 'yes.'"

Janus is challenging a 1977 court ruling declaring that public sector workers can be required to pay a portion of union dues in order to cover their expenses and stop non-members from becoming "free-riders" -- reaping the benefits of collective bargaining without assuming the costs.

But its opponents contend docking non-union members' pay slips for an organization they did not sign up for is a violation of their constitutional right to freedom of expression.

The issue last came before the court in March 2016 in a case brought by a group of California teachers.

The court remained deadlocked 4-4 between its progressive and conservative wings at a time when its ninth seat was vacant.

But the elevation of conservative Judge Neil Gorsuch to the court last year is likely to prove decisive this time around.

- Trump's backing -

Janus's legal action has the support of the federal administration headed by President Donald Trump, numerous conservative organizations and 19 states.

The opposing side, the American Federation of State Union and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) which is being sued, is backed by 20 states including Illinois, as well the federal capital Washington.

Janus, a greying and bespectacled middle-aged father, told the conservative Illinois Policy he did not agree with the political positions of the AFSCME.

"The union's fight is not my fight," he said.

American unions on the other hand stand to lose millions of members and a crucial source of income for all their activities, from representing workers in contract negotiations to election spending. Major unions have traditionally leaned heavily toward the Democratic Party.

"Millions of public service workers now rely on nine Supreme Court justices to decide this case on its merits -- not on the ideological animus of the billionaires and corporate interests who are funding this blatant effort to silence the voices of the workers," the AFSCME said.

- Key judge muted -

Gorsuch gave nothing away during Monday's hearing. But two of his conservative colleagues, Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy, clearly signaled their opposition to the status quo.

The court's progressives on the other hand warned that overturning precedent would result in social upheaval.

The unionization rate has been declining in the US since the 1950s, but its erosion has been less pronounced in the public sector than in the private, where unions represent only 6.5 percent of employees.

A fresh blow would result in unions becoming "more militant, more confrontational," warned David Franklin, solicitor general for Illinois.

"Union security is the tradeoff for no strikes," he said, adding that overruling the 1977 case "can raise an untold specter of labor unrest throughout the country."

Dozens of pro-union activists were meanwhile seen protesting outside the court building Monday morning.

The Supreme Court is to give its verdict in the case by the end of June.

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