Unions dinged by court ruling, but buoyed by Democrats

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TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey's influential public unions got a boost this year when Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy took over state government from their perennial foe, Republican Chris Christie, but now they're facing headwinds from Washington.

The Supreme Court this week ruled in a 5-4 decision to scrap a 41-year-old decision that allowed states to require public employees pay some fees to unions that represent them, even if the workers choose not to join.

In New Jersey, where an estimated three in five public workers are union members — nearly twice the national rate — there has been little evidence so far that the organizations' political clout has fallen, though Republicans are hopeful.

A closer look at what the ruling means in New Jersey:

NO MORE 'AGENCY FEES'

The ruling dealt a blow to labor, which collected the so-called agency fees from non-members to help finance operations. Conservatives argued the cash also went to fund political activities that primarily helped Democrats. That's mostly the case in New Jersey, where labor and the Democrat-controlled state government are closely connected.

Before the court's ruling, unions could charge up to 85 percent of the cost of membership through the fees.

Still, the state's largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, seemed to brush off concern over the loss of such fees. Just 3,000 out of 200,000 total members fall into the category affected by the court's ruling, according to spokesman Steven Baker. Other state unions, like the Communication Workers of America, have said they have similarly high percentages of membership.

The union contributes millions to Democrats through a political action committee most years, though last year the group was locked in a bitter fight in Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney, pouring cash into the coffers of his Republican rival.

"We are confident that we will remain able to do the representation and advocacy work that has long made NJEA a strong union," he said.

GOP CHEER

Republicans, who are outnumbered in New Jersey by about 900,000 registered voters, are hopeful the ruling will help disintegrate Democrats' hold on political power.

"The cycle of public employee unions using dues to finance the campaigns of politicians who then reward them with taxpayer dollars may finally be coming to an end," Republican state Sen. Declan O'Scanlon said.

Under Christie, the GOP succeeded in getting concessions from Democratic lawmakers to cut union members' cost-of-living increases pension in exchange for increased state funding to the underfunded pension.

But Murphy has made no further promises to rein in costs or require members to pay more. It's a key argument among Republicans who are pushing for cuts in retiree health benefits as part of budget negotiations.

DEMOCRATIC LOCK?

It looks like a high hill for Republicans to climb.

The teachers and state workers unions have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Murphy's campaign effort and millions more over the years to Democrats. In 2015, the NJEA funded Democratic efforts that helped pick up seats in the Assembly.

"We stand firm with our labor unions and labor organizations to advocate and protect members' rights," Murphy said.

The freshman governor pledged this year when he signed a bill aimed at blunting the potential effects of the court's ruling in this case to take further action to prevent harming labor, but it's unclear exactly what that will be.


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