An overview of the public-sector labor lawsuits tracked by Ballotpedia


Note: The next edition of Union Station will be on Jan. 7, 2022. Until then, happy holidays!

Overview of federal lawsuits related to public-sector labor policy

Since late 2019, Ballotpedia has tracked 160 federal lawsuits related to public-sector labor policy. Today, we’ll look at an overview of these cases. We’ll also highlight seven Supreme Court decisions that these cases commonly reference. 


The majority of these lawsuits ask one or more of the following questions:

  • Whether public-sector unions can be held liable for refunding agency fees paid before the Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling in Janus v. AFSCME;  
  • Whether public-sector unions may continue to collect union dues from an employee who leaves the union if there is a pre-existing agreement for fees deduction throughout a given time period; 
  • Whether exclusive bargaining representation laws violate non-union members’ First Amendment rights; 
  • Whether mandatory bar association dues should be reconsidered in light of Janus.

The map below shows the cases we’re tracking by the U.S. district court in which they originated. The three districts with the highest number of cases are the Central District of California (16 cases), the Middle District of Pennsylvania (16 cases), and the District of Oregon (13 cases).    

Here’s the breakdown by circuit:

And by case status (pending cases are divided by court level, and cases that have been dismissed, settled, or otherwise resolved are counted together):   

Finally, this chart shows the cases we’ve tracked by the year they were filed. The earliest case we’ve tracked was filed in 2014. 

Commonly referenced Supreme Court decisions

The following Supreme Court decisions are commonly referenced in these types of cases. Here’s a quick rundown of each decision, in chronological order: 

  • Lathrop v. Donohue (1961)
    • Appealed to the Supreme Court from the Supreme Court of Wisconsin. 
    • Chief Justice Earl Warren and Justices William Brennan, Tom Clark, Potter Stewart, John Marshall Harlan II, Felix Frankfurter, and Charles Evans Whittaker formed the majority. Justices Hugo Black and William O. Douglas dissented.  
    • Justice Brennan wrote: “We are persuaded that … we have no sound basis for deciding appellant’s constitutional claim insofar as it rests on the assertion that his rights of free speech are violated by the use of his money for causes which he opposes. Even if the demurrer is taken as admitting all the factual allegations of the complaint, even if these allegations are construed most expansively, and even if, like the Wisconsin Supreme Court, we take judicial notice of the political activities of the State Bar, still we think that the issue of impingement upon rights of free speech through the use of exacted dues is no more concretely presented for adjudication than it was in [Railway Employees’ Dept. v. Hanson (1956)]. ”
  • Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977)
    • Appealed to the Supreme Court from the Michigan Court of Appeals.
    • Unanimous decision.
    • Justice Potter Stewart wrote: “There can be no quarrel with the truism that, because public employee unions attempt to influence governmental policymaking, their activities — and the view of members who disagree with them — may be properly termed political. But that characterization does not raise the ideas and beliefs of public employees onto a higher plane than the idea and belief of private employees. … The differences between public and private sector collective bargaining simply do not translate into differences in First Amendment rights.” 
    • Overturned in Janus v. AFSCME (2018).
  • Chicago Teachers Union v. Hudson (1986)
    • Appealed to the Supreme Court from the Seventh Circuit.  
    • Unanimous decision.
    • Justice John Paul Stevens wrote: “We hold today that the constitutional requirements for the Union’s collection of agency fees include an adequate explanation of the basis for the fee, a reasonably prompt opportunity to challenge the amount of the fee before an impartial decisionmaker, and an escrow for the amounts reasonably in dispute while such challenges are pending.”
  • Keller v. State Bar of California (1990)
    • Appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court from the Supreme Court of California. 
    • Unanimous decision. 
    • Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote: “Here the compelled association and integrated bar is justified by the State’s interest in regulating the legal profession and improving the quality of legal services. The State Bar may therefore constitutionally fund activities germane to those goals out of the mandatory dues of all members. It may not, however, in such manner fund activities of an ideological nature which fall outside of those areas of activity. The difficult question, of course, is to define the latter class of activities.”
  • Knox v. Serv. Emps. Int’l Union Local 1000 (2012)
    • Appealed to the Supreme Court from the Ninth Circuit. 
    • Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Sonia Sotomayor, and Clarence Thomas formed the majority. Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan dissented.
    • Justice Alito wrote: “In this case, we decide whether the First Amendment allows a public-sector union to require objecting nonmembers to pay a special fee for the purpose of financing the union’s political and ideological activities. […] Public-sector unions have the right under the First Amendment to express their views on political and social issues without government interference. … But employees who choose not to join a union have the same rights. … Therefore, when a public-sector union imposes a special assessment or dues increase, the union must provide a fresh Hudson notice and may not exact any funds from nonmembers without their affirmative consent.”
  • Harris v. Quinn (2014)
    • Appealed to the Supreme Court from the Seventh Circuit. 
    • Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas formed the majority. Justices Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor dissented. 
    • Justice Alito wrote: “This case presents the question whether the First Amendment permits a State to compel personal care providers to subsidize speech on matters of public concern by a union that they do not wish to join or support. […] [W]e refuse to extend Abood in the manner that Illinois seeks. If we accepted Illinois’ argument, we would approve an unprecedented violation of the bedrock principle that, except perhaps in the rarest of circumstances, no person in this country may be compelled to subsidize speech by a third party that he or she does not wish to support. The First Amendment prohibits the collection of an agency fee from personal assistants in the Rehabilitation Program who do not want to join or support the union.”
  • Janus v. AFSCME (2018)
    • Appealed to the Supreme Court from the Seventh Circuit.  
    • Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch formed the majority. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan dissented.
    • Justice Alito wrote: “Under Illinois law, public employees are forced to subsidize a union, even if they choose not to join and strongly object to the positions the union takes in collective bargaining and related activities. We conclude that this arrangement violates the free speech rights of nonmembers by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern. We upheld a similar law in Abood v. Detroit Bd. of Ed. … and we recognize the importance of following precedent unless there are strong reasons for not doing so. But there are very strong reasons in this case. Fundamental free speech rights are at stake. Abood was poorly reasoned. It has led to practical problems and abuse. It is inconsistent with other First Amendment cases and has been undermined by more recent decisions. Developments since Abood was handed down have shed new light on the issue of agency fees, and no reliance interests on the part of public-sector unions are sufficient to justify the perpetuation of the free speech violations that Abood has countenanced for the past 41 years. Abood is therefore overruled.”

To view a spreadsheet with information about all of the lawsuits we’re tracking, click here.

What we’re reading

The big picture

Number of relevant bills by state

We are currently tracking 110 pieces of legislation dealing with public-sector employee union policy. On the map below, a darker shade of green indicates a greater number of relevant bills. Click here for a complete list of all the bills we’re tracking. 

Number of relevant bills by current legislative status

Number of relevant bills by partisan status of sponsor(s) 

Recent legislative actions

Below is a complete list of relevant legislative actions taken since our last issue.

  • New Jersey A5862: This bill would expand the terms and conditions negotiable between government employers and public-sector unions to include those that “intimately and directly affect employee work and welfare,” with certain exceptions. It would also allow a public-sector union to charge a non-dues-paying employee for the cost of representation in arbitration proceedings, and to decline to represent a non-dues-paying employee who does not agree to pay the cost of representation. 
    • Democratic sponsorship. 
    • Assembly Labor Committee hearing held Dec. 13.