HELENA – Montana union leaders said Tuesday they foresee no immediate impact in Montana from a U.S. Supreme Court decision that concluded certain government employees don’t have to pay fees to the unions representing them.

Their concern is whether the court’s narrow decision Monday will become a broader decision by the Roberts court down the road.

“It won’t affect any of our folks,” said Timm Twardoski, executive director of Montana Council 9 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “We did dodge a bullet, but the guns are still pointed at us”.

Eric Feaver, president of the MEA-MFT, agreed the ruling won’t affect unions here at this point.

“Who knows where this court will go?” Feaver said. “Folks in my national unions said it’s the first of other decisions to come. Is this a precedent-setting event? I have no idea. Is this something the court could build on that public unions couldn’t use agency fees?”

Agency fees are paid by public employees who don’t want to be union members and pay dues. Instead, they pay a fee for the union representing them in negotiations for pay and benefits.

Quinton Nyman, executive director of the Montana Public Employees Association, concurred with his Montana union colleagues.

“I don’t know that the Supreme Court decision has any real major impact on Montana,” he said. “I don’t think we have similar scenarios as other states do with those single-employee public health workers.”

In a written, 5-4 decision Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that home health care employees in Illinois, who are partial public employees paid with Medicaid funds, cannot be forced to pay union dues. They can choose not to join a union and not be compelled to pay dues to the labor organization under the ruling.

The court didn’t extend the decision to all public-sector workers, which unions feared might be the case.

However, the Los Angeles Times said the decision “practically invites the National Right to Work Foundation, which brought the case, to bring additional challenges that could apply the same legal reasoning to millions of other workers.”

Employees at a Montana workplace organized by a union don’t have to pay full union dues. Instead they pay a lower fee for the union representing them in negotiations for wages and benefits, Feaver said.

“The fees will vary from employer to employer and is bargained in every contract,” Feaver said.

In some bargaining units, every employee belongs to a union, he said, while in others, about half are dues-paying union members and the remaining members pay the fee.

“It’s a very narrow decision,” Feaver said. “But the question people are asking is does a narrow decision lead down the road to a more broad case.”

Chuck Johnson is chief of the Lee Newspapers State Bureau in Helena. He can be reached by email at chuck.johnson@lee.net or by phone at (406) 447-4066 or (800) 525-4920.

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