Justices Decline Challenge to Exclusive Public-Employee Union Representation

By Mark Walsh — April 29, 2019 4 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up a case that held the potential to deal a further blow to public-employee unions, including those in K-12 and higher education, in the wake of last term’s major decision that removed the ability of such unions to collect service fees from nonmembers.

The newly denied case involved the right of public unions in many states to be the exclusive representative for all employees in a bargaining unit, and whether nonmembers have First Amendment speech and associational interests in not being represented if they object.

Those interests was central to the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision last term in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31 to overrule a 41-year-old precedent that allowed the teachers’ unions and other public-employee labor organizations to collect fees for collective bargaining from workers who decline to join the union. The justices also ruled that workers must affirmatively opt into the union before fees can be taken out of their paychecks.

In his majority opinion in Janus, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote that it is “not disputed that the state may require that a union serve as exclusive bargaining agent for its employees,” but that such an arrangement is “itself a significant impingement on associational freedoms that would not be tolerated in other contexts.”

Last July, just days after the high court’s June 27 decision in Janus, Kathleen Uradnik, a political science professor at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, filed a lawsuit challenging the exclusive-representation arrangement authorized by Minnesota law. Under such arrangements, which are typical in states that permit public-employee union representation, bargaining units vote on a single labor organization to represent them.

Uradnik disagreed with many of the positions taken by the faculty union, the Inter Faculty Association, an independent union at seven Minnesota State university campuses that appears to be unaffiliated with either the American Federation of Teachers or the National Education Association.

While Uradnik’s suit was pending, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, in St. Louis, ruled in a case involving Minnesota home health-care workers in which it rejected a claim that exclusive-representation arrangements violated the First Amendment. In Uradnik’s case, both a federal district court and then a panel of the 8th Circuit ruled against the professor based on that circuit precedent.

The professor appealed to the Supreme Court in Uradnik v. Inter Faculty Association (Case No. 18-719).

“Minnesota law recognizes a labor union as representing and speaking on behalf of Dr. Uradnik, despite that she vehemently opposes its positions and advocacy on issues ranging from fiscal policy to university governance,” the professor’s appeal says.

Uradnik gained the support of several groups that filed friend-of-the-court briefs on her side, including the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, the Pacific Legal Foundation, the Cato Intstitute, the Goldwater Institute, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Most of these groups cite Alito’s language about exclusive-representation being an “impingement” on First Amendment concerns. Both the appeal and several of the supporting briefs note that the Inter Faculty Association was first certified in 1975, long before Uradnik or other faculty members first took jobs in the state university system.

Lower courts, these briefs argue, have refused to subject exclusive repesentation schemes to any degree of constitutional scrutiny, on the mistaken view that the Supreme Court approved such arrangements in a 1984 case known as Minnesota State Board for Community Colleges v. Knight. That decision dealt with how some public professional employees may “meet and confer” with their employers outside the scope of collective bargaining.

Both the Inter Faculty Association and the Minnesota state college system filed briefs opposing high court review.

The union said that under Minnesota’s public-employee labor law, Uradnik remained free to complain about working conditions directly to her employer, and that she “regularly takes advantage of this policy, expressing her views to administrators about teaching loads, enrollment, recruitment, and many other issues.”

The union also pointed out that there are other cases working their way in the lower courts that raise objections to exclusive representative after Janus, including a K-12 case in Ohio.

“Given that the lower court decisions thus far are unanimous and only two courts of appeals have ruled on petitioner’s argument after Janus, there is no good reason to preempt further percolation of this issue,” says the brief of the Inter Faculty Association.

It seems likely this issue will eventually “percolate” back up the Supreme Court.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.