FoxNews.com - In a major legal and political defeat for big labor, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on Wednesday that state government workers cannot be forced to pay so-called "fair share" fees to support collective bargaining and other union activities.
While the current case applies only to public-sector employees, the political and financial stakes are potentially huge for the broader American labor union movement, which had been sounding the alarm about the legal fight.
The unions say 5 million government employees in 24 states and the District of Columbia would be affected by this ruling.
At issue in the high-stakes case was whether states can compel government workers -- whether they are in a union or not -- to pay fees to support union activities. The case centered on the complaints of an Illinois state employee who sued, saying he was being asked to support the union's political message.
Justices split 4-4 on the issue in a similar case two years ago. But with Neil Gorsuch now filling the vacancy left by the late Antonin Scalia, he was seen as the deciding vote this time – and sided with the conservative majority in Wednesday’s opinion.
But while his colleagues were closely divided in arguments back in February, Gorsuch played it close to the vest and left court watchers guessing for comments. He had no comments or questions from the bench during nearly 70 minutes of oral arguments.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, often a swing justice in other cases, cast a skeptical eye toward the union argument in February He said repeatedly that separating politics from the union's collective bargaining mission was impossible.
"We're talking here about compelled justification and compelled subsidization of a private party that expresses political views constantly," Kennedy said. He told the union's lawyer, "It seems to me your argument doesn't have much weight."
The plaintiff in the case, Mark Janus, has worked for years as an Illinois state employee and pays about $550 annually to the powerful public-sector union known as AFSCME.
While not a member of the union, he is required under state law to hand over a weekly portion of his paycheck, which he says is a violation of his constitutional rights.
"The fundamental issue is my right to choice," Janus said outside the court in February.
Labor leaders oppose so-called "free riding" by workers like Janus, however, and say they have a legal duty to advocate for all employees.
The high court was asked to overturn its four-decade-old ruling allowing so-called "fair share" fees for public employees.
The repercussions could affect unions nationwide. Union membership nationwide is less than 11 percent of the American workforce, but about a third of government employees are members.
The Supreme Court had deadlocked when the issue was revisited two years ago, just after Scalia died.
Gorsuch, the replacement named by President Trump, faced strong labor union opposition at his confirmation hearings last spring, but told senators his record backing workers was strong.
Trump's Justice Department has been clear on its position -- announcing in December it was reversing course from the previous administration and supporting Janus.
Nearly 30 states have so-called "right-to-work laws" that prohibit or limit union security agreements between companies and workers' unions.
States that do allow "fair share" fees say they go to a variety of activities that benefit all workers, whether in the union or not. That includes collective bargaining for wage and benefit increases, grievance procedures, and workplace safety.