How media takes sides in the Supreme Court case on union dues
Photo by Shutterstock

How media takes sides in the Supreme Court case on union dues

September 29, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

US Supreme Court to hear case on mandatory public union fees

On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would hear a case in its upcoming session on mandatory union fees for public employees. In the Illinois case, Janus vs. AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), the court will determine whether state government employees who are not union members can still be required to pay a share of union fees to cover the cost of negotiating contracts. The court is scheduled to hear the case during its 2017-2018 term, which begins next Monday. A ruling is due by June of next year.

The plaintiff in the case is Mark Janus, a child support specialist employed by the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services. Janus, and his representatives from the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, argues that requiring non-members to cover the cost of collective bargaining violates the First Amendment’s right to free expression by supporting unions that in turn support political positions and candidates.

Twenty-two states have laws authorizing mandatory union fees, and laws requiring the unions to negotiate on behalf of both members and non-members alike. The remaining 28 states have so-called “right-to-work” laws that prohibit requirements for workers to join or support a union.

Current interpretation of the legislation is based on the Supreme Court ruling in the 1977 case of Abood vs. Detroit Board of Education. That ruling stated that all employees, including non-union members, can be required to support a union’s work with negotiating contracts because they benefit from the results, but not be required to support a union’s political donations or lobbying work. (See Context for more information.)

Janus vs. AFSCME examines a similar issue to a 2015 case, Friedrichs vs. the California Teachers Association. That case was also heard by the Supreme Court, but the court split 4-4 on the issue after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia left an opening on the bench. The split left the lower court’s ruling in place. The Supreme Court is now back to nine members with the appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch.


Distortion Highlights

  • Perhaps it’s no surprise that the L.A. Times has a different slant than Breitbart.
  • But when media outlets have biased coverage of a Supreme Court case, it can impede us from thoroughly evaluating complex legal and ethical issues.
  • It discourages a deep examination of the competing principles involved, and understanding others’ viewpoints.

Show Me Everything

The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

View Technical Sheet >

The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion.)

Top Spin Words

  • Major Threat

    The Supreme Court agreed Thursday to hear a challenge to the so-called “fair share” fees public employee unions collect from non-members, posing a major threat to organized labor. (USA Today)

  • Crushing Blow

    Since then, Justice Neil Gorsuch — a Scalia acolyte — has joined the court, likely giving conservatives the fifth vote they need to deal a potentially crushing blow to public unions’ pocketbooks. (USA Today)

  • Major Blow

    The Supreme Court on Thursday added 11 new cases to its docket for this year, including one that appears certain to be a major blow to public-sector unions. (Breitbart)

  • Crippling Blow

    The Supreme Court agreed Thursday to take up a case that could deal a crippling blow to unions representing millions of the nation’s public employees. (NBC News)

  • Sharp Blow

    Supreme Court poised to deal a sharp blow to unions for teachers and public employees (Los Angeles Times)

    The Supreme Court is poised to deal a sharp blow to the unions that represent millions of teachers and other public employees, announcing Thursday it will consider striking down the mandatory fees that support collective bargaining. (Los Angeles Times)

  • Costly Setback

    The decision, due by next June, could prove a costly setback for public-sector unions in 22 states, including California, where such fees are authorized by law. (Los Angeles Times)

  • Sharply Criticized

    The nation’s four largest public-sector unions — the National Education Assn., the American Federation of Teachers, the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — sharply criticized the case, calling it “a blatantly political and well-funded plot to use the highest court in the land to further rig the economic rules against everyday working people.” (Los Angeles Times)

  • Blockbuster

    The group’s argument — that forcing workers to pay union dues is a form of compelled speech — is the same one being used in another blockbuster case teed up for the high court’s review this term. (USA Today)

  • Much-maligned

    The Court had held in its much-maligned 1977 case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that the Constitution allows forcing union members to pay for political speech they disagree with. (Breitbart)

  • Starkly Divided

    The test case from Wisconsin has the potential to alter the balance of power across a country starkly divided between red and blue. (USA Today)

There are certain biases embedded in the news coverage of this week’s Supreme Court decision to hear the union dues case, which may distort how readers understand the issue. For example, coverage suggests that the court will rule against the unions and in favor of Janus, though the court hasn’t heard the case yet. Media also imports moral judgments on the case: one outlet implies ruling against the unions would be good and correct a past mistake, whereas three imply that ruling against the unions would be harmful to workers and a bad decision.

Let’s examine how word choice and placement contribute to these biases.

Suggesting a predetermined outcome

All four analyzed outlets suggest the court is going to rule against the unions. For instance, USA Today says, the court’s “five-member conservative majority appears poised to rule” against the unions. The wording of “appears poised” biases readers towards that outcome.

Of course, ruling for Janus may be the most likely outcome. The last ruling on a similar case was 4-4, with the justices known as “conservative” ruling against the mandatory union dues, and the new justice, Gorsuch, is considered “conservative.” But it’s one thing to present ruling for Janus as a possibility, and another to bias readers towards that outcome, before the decision has come in. After all, if the ruling were predetermined, the court wouldn’t even need to hear the case.

Importing bias on a potential ruling against the unions

Implying it’s a good decision: Breitbart’s headline reads: “Supreme Court Will Hear Major Free Speech Case Against Unions,” immediately framing it as a “free speech” issue, rather than first focusing on the collective bargaining, as some other outlets do. Since “free speech” is the plaintiff’s argument, this favors his side rather than the defense. And without exploring the potential downsides of ruling against the unions, who wouldn’t support more “free speech”?

Later, Breitbart calls the court’s 1977 ruling (which this case could overturn) “much-maligned” – suggesting that many people have opposed it and called it harmful, implying it was a bad ruling. In turn, reversing a “maligned” decision would be good.

In contrast…

Implying it’s a bad decision: The Los Angeles Times, NBC News and USA Today favor this perspective. The L.A. Times’ lead sentence, for instance, says the court “is poised to deal a sharp blow to the unions that represent millions of teachers and other public employees.” Since a “sharp blow” implies violence and the sentence emphasizes the ruling could affect groups that represent “millions of teachers,” it could suggest the ruling would harm people.

The Times also cites the unions’ perspective higher up in the article, such as their calling the case a “plot” to “further rig the economic rules against everyday working people.” The publication doesn’t provide the arguments for the other side until close to the end.

Why does this matter?

The cases that go before the Supreme Court involve complicated legal and ethical considerations, and generally don’t have simple, obvious answers. That’s part of why they’ve made it to the highest court. It’s then the court’s job to carefully weigh all sides of the case. The news isn’t doing this.

Instead, for the media to portray a future ruling as definite and import moral judgment on it oversimplifies the case and could bias the public before a ruling even comes out. It does a disservice to readers by not encouraging a deep examination of the competing principles involved, and understanding of others’ viewpoints.

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 35% Spun

  • 43% Spun

  • 47% Spun

  • 48% Spun



“With Justice Neil Gorsuch now sitting in the seat formerly held by Justice Scalia, everyone is betting that Abood will not survive the current challenge.”

Gorsuch was sworn in to the Supreme Court earlier this year, replacing Scalia. He’s described as “conservative” by media. With a full bench of nine judges, no ties are possible.

USA Today

“Justice Neil Gorsuch — a Scalia acolyte — has joined the court, likely giving conservatives the fifth vote they need to deal a potentially crushing blow to public unions’ pocketbooks.”

Gorsuch was sworn in to the Supreme Court earlier this year, filling the empty seat. Media outlets describe him as “conservative,” and with a full bench, no ties are possible.

Fact Comparison

  • Facts in only 1 source
  • Facts in 2 sources
  • Facts in 3 sources
  • Facts in all sources

The Court had held in its 1977 case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that the Constitution allows requiring union members to pay for political speech they disagree with. (Breitbart)

The 1977 case actually ruled that employees can’t be forced to pay union fees that fund ideological causes with which they don’t agree, but that they can be required to pay fees used for collective bargaining.

The case noted: “The Constitution requires that a union’s expenditures for ideological causes not germane to its duties as a collective bargaining representative be financed from charges, dues, or assessments paid by employees who do not object to advancing such causes and who are not coerced into doing so against their will by the threat of loss of governmental employment.”

(See Context for more information.)

The Supreme Court announced Thursday it will consider striking down the mandatory fees that support collective bargaining. (Los Angeles Times)

This statement may indirectly suggest that “striking down” such fees is an inevitability. Since the Supreme Court didn’t actually say the above, it may be more accurate to say that the court agreed to hear the case. As a result, they may decide to “strike down” the fees – or not.


An article’s headline can direct how the news is understood. Compare and contrast how different outlets present the story through their headlines.

Doesn’t say what the case is actually about – namely mandatory union dues.

Implies the Supreme Court is ready to rule against the unions.

Suggesting that the outcome of the case is certain, before the court has deliberated, is speculation, not fact. How might this affect your views of the issue?

Doesn’t say what the actual news is.

This headline suggests that a ruling will affect the “power” of the unions. The “power” to do what? It could be that NBC News mean the “power” to collect dues from non-members, but it doesn’t specify.

Factual, with no opinion or speculation.


Get the full picture! Don’t buy into cherry-picked information.

The media’s slant:
  • With a conservative majority, the Supreme Court will rule in favor of Janus and overturn the previous ruling on the Abood case.
  • Either the Supreme Court decision will be bad for public unions reducing their enrollment and power (Los Angeles Times, NBC News, USA Today) or the decision will be good and prevent the unjust payment of mandatory union dues (Breitbart). See more in The Distortion!
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • We don’t know what the Supreme Court will decide until they’ve heard the case, as there may be multiple factors not yet presented they’ll take into consideration. Although NBC reports that four conservative justices have suggested that they agreed with Janus, voting in his favor isn’t guaranteed.
  • We don’t yet know the effects of the Supreme Court decision or what it will be. There may be positive aspects to union dues that aren’t being explored by Breitbart, while there also may be legitimate constitutional issues with mandatory union dues that aren’t being considered as much by the other articles. Either way, the slanted perspective the outlets present may not allow readers to see the bigger picture and make a more informed opinion.


Access information and historical data that provides a more comprehensive understanding of the story.

How does collective bargaining work?

  • Collective bargaining is a process of negotiating terms of employment with a group of workers, like through a union, rather than on an individual basis.
  • Employees can choose a union to represent them.
  • The employer and union representative must meet at set times to discuss employee-related issues.
    • Issues include: wages, hours, vacation time, insurance, safety practices and other decision that may affect employees.
  • If neither side can agree on a deal, the employer may declare an “impasse” and implement the last offer presented to the union.
  • The union can either accept the offer or disagree with the “impasse” and file a charge of “unfair labor practice” with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for “failure to bargain in good faith.”
  • The NLRB acts as a third-party moderator, deciding either to accept the “impasse” or compel the employer to continue with negotiations.

What are union dues?

The National Labor Relations Act allows employers and unions to enter into an agreement that requires all employees “in a bargaining unit” to become union members and pay union fees within 30 days of employment. However, individual employees may object to becoming union members (see below).

What’s an “agency fee?”

Employees who benefit from the union’s collective bargaining efforts but choose not to become union members pay an “agency fee” to help fund certain union activities, like contract negotiations and arbitrations. According to UC San Diego, this fee may also be referred to as “fair share” or an “agency shop fee.”

What are “right-to-work” laws?

A “right-to-work” law says that no person can be compelled as a condition of employment to join a union or pay union dues (excluding agency fees), according to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (NRWLDF). Specifics may vary by state. The NRWLDF lists 28 states with “right-to-work” laws in place.

Which Supreme Court cases have involved union dues?

Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977)

Question posed: Whether an agency shop provision (employed, non-members paying union fees) in a collective bargaining agreement covering governmental employees is, as such, constitutionally valid.

Ruling: Union agency fees can’t be used to “compel non-union employees to fund political or ideological activities of the union to which they object.” But non-union employees may be required to pay fees for “collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment purposes,” per Britannica.

Friedrichs v. the California Teachers Assn. (2016)

Question posed: Do unions violate public employees’ First Amendment rights through public sector “agency shop” arrangements or by requiring them to affirmatively object to subsidizing the union’s political speech?

Ruling: Since the Supreme Court was equally divided (4-4), the judgement of the lower courts, which sided with the union, was affirmed.

Janus v. AFSCME. (2017)

Question posed: Should Abood v. Detroit Board of Education be overruled and public-sector agency fee arrangements be declared unconstitutional under the First Amendment?

Ruling: To be determined.

Other labor-related cases can be found via the NLRB database.