A US Supreme Court decision striking down mandatory fees paid to public-sector unions undermines workers’ collective rights and can’t be squared with Catholic teaching, including Benedict XVI’s encyclicals, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has said.

“It is disappointing that today’s Supreme Court ruling renders the long-held view of so many bishops constitutionally out-of-bounds, and threatens to ‘limit the freedom or negotiating capacity of labor unions’,” Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said June 27.

Bishop Dewane drew on the 25th paragraph of Benedict’s 2009 encyclical on integral human development in charity and truth, Caritas in veritate, to object to limits on labor unions’ freedom.

“By reading the First Amendment to invalidate agency fee provisions in public-sector collective bargaining agreements, the Court has determined – nationwide, and almost irrevocably – that all government work places shall be ‘right-to-work’,” said the bishop.

The outlawing of these agency fee agreements means that state and federal legislatures should explore alternative means “for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights,” Bishop DeWayne said, again citing Caritas in veritate.

However, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield in Illinois took a different view, saying he finds it “encouraging” that the Supreme Court “upholds the right to be free from coercion in speech.”

Commenting in a June 28 post on Twitter, Paprocki, depicting the agency fees as dues, said that “no longer will public sector employees be required pay dues to support unions that promote abortion and other political issues with which they disagree.”

The 5-4 decision in Janus v. AFSCME struck down a 1997 Illinois law that required non-union workers to pay fees for collective bargaining.

The plaintiff in the case, Mark Janus, is an Illinois state employee who sued the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). He contended that mandatory “agency fees” paid to the union for contract negotiations violate his free speech because the union takes actions with which he does not agree, the Washington Post reports.

These fees are not used for political purposes, but his lawyers argue that the unions’ lobbying efforts are political acts.

In a Feb. 26 essay in USA Today, Janus said the union uses his monthly fees “to promote an agenda I don’t support.” He objected to the legislation supported by the union’s lobbying arm and to politicians supported by its political arm.

The court considered the constitutionality of “fair share” or “agency” fees, SCOTUSblog reporter Amy Howe said in a June 27 opinion analysis. The decision overturned the 1977 ruling in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.

The majority opinion, authored by Justice Samuel Alito, ruled that the mandatory agency fees violate the First Amendment. The fees mean public employees who are not union members pay for “unspecified” lobbying expenses and other services that may benefit them. This purpose is “broad enough to encompass just about anything that the union might choose to do” and if a non-member wanted to challenge a fee it would be a “laborious and difficult task” given that it is hard to distinguish what expenses non-members are required to pay and which they are not.

Alito said that the legal and economic environment has changed, with public spending, including public employee wages, benefits and pensions, showing “mounting costs.” These changes give collective bargaining a political significance that might not have been present when such fees were upheld by the Supreme Court.

Despite burdens on unions, Alito said, there have been “many billions of dollars” taken from non-members and transferred to public sector unions “in violation of the First Amendment.”

Justice Elena Kagan, who authored the main dissent, said previous legal precedent “struck a stable balance between public employees’ First Amendment rights and government entities’ interests in running their workforces as they thought proper.” Over 20 states have statutory schemes based on the precedent, she said, charging that the majority of justices acted “with no real clue of what will happen next – of how its action will alter public-sector labor relations.”

“It does so even though the government services affected – policing, firefighting, teaching, transportation, sanitation (and more) – affect the quality of life of tens of millions of Americans,” Kagan said.

Janus was represented by the Liberty Justice Center and the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.

His case also had the support of the Becket Fund, whose own amicus brief argued that allowing government workers to opt-out of mandatory union payments protects their freedom of speech and religious freedom.

The legal group, which focuses on religious liberty concerns, argued that giving power to unions to force employees to support speech with which they disagree was a form of “coercion laundering” in which the law uses non-government organizations to coerce.

In a case summary on its website, Becket said the case could have ramifications for religious colleges and universities under private accrediting agencies that could use delegated government authority to infringe on their religious speech and practices.

The Office of General Counsel of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops filed its own amicus brief in the case. It said that “right-to-work” laws eliminate the clauses that prevent “free riders” who benefit from union contracts without paying for union membership. Eliminating these clauses “dramatically weakens” unions and their bargaining power on workers’ behalf, the brief objected.

The brief cited the Church’s strong commitments to protect both the poor and vulnerable from exploitation, and to protect the right of association from governmental infringement. It invoked the Church's historic, consistent support for workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively. The brief cited repeated papal calls since Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical on capital and labor, Rerum novarum, to promote “workers’ associations that can defend their rights.”

The USCCB's brief advocated that the court leave “constitutional space” for the public policy position supported “for so long by so many bishops and bishop-led institutions” rather than “declare still another such position outside the bounds of what policymakers are permitted to implement by law.”

At the time, Bishop Paprocki objected to some news coverage of the case that depicted the legal brief as a position adopted by the U.S. bishops.

“In fact, no vote was taken on whether to file such a brief,” he said Feb. 13. “While church teaching clearly supports freedom of association and the right to form and join a union, it does not mandate coercing people to join a union or pay dues against their will.”

For Paprocki, the question of whether rights of association and free speech are helped or hurt by mandatory dues is “a matter of prudential judgment on which reasonable people can disagree as to whether the rights of association and free speech are helped or hindered by mandatory union dues.”  

A May study from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute predicted that a decision in favor of Janus would mean a loss of over 700,000 members from public-sector unions and a wage decline of several percentage points for public sector employees.

Teachers’ unions could be “permanently crippled” by the decision, the journal Education Next reported, though the decision could provide an impetus for other changes.

A loss in teachers’ unions membership could result in a decline in revenues and ability to affect policy. The National Education Association has planned a 13 percent cut for its two-year budget, totaling about $50 million, with its estimated membership losses of 300,000 people, about 10 percent.