By John McClaughry
In his Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom (1785), Thomas Jefferson famously declared that “to compel a man to furnish contribution of money for the propagation of opinion which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.”
In that spirit, the U.S. Supreme Court last month struck down “agency fees” taken by public sector unions from non-members’ paychecks. “The First Amendment,” Justice Alito wrote in the Janus v. AFSCME case, “does not permit the government to compel a person to pay for another party’s speech just because the government thinks that the speech furthers the interests of the person who does not want to pay.”
The case not only held that requiring non-members to pay “agency fees” is coercing political speech, but also that “neither an agency fee nor any other payment to the union may be deducted from a nonmember’s wages, nor may any other attempt be made to collect such a payment, unless the employee affirmatively consents to pay.”
The ruling applies only to public sector unions, the most prominent of which are the Vermont State Employees Association and the Vermont-NEA teachers union. The reason it doesn’t apply to a unionized private employer like General Electric is important.
Private sector unions have no way to influence the decision makers — management and stockholders – of their employers. A union’s ultimate bargaining asset is the right to withhold its members’ labor — to go on strike. But state employees and teachers unions are inherently political. Through their political activities they can elect and influence the governor, the legislature, and the school boards to give them greater gains in the bargaining process.
This leads public sector unions to join political coalitions with other like-minded organizations to elect liberal office holders who once in office will support the causes of all of the coalition members. These may include civil rights, social issues, union privileges, climate change measures, immigration laws, government-run health care, and “free” college tuition.
The public sector unions invariably support expanded government programs and taxpayer-financed spending increases, which lead to better pay and benefits for more dues-paying union members. In Illinois, where the Janus case originated, the state employee union (AFSCME) made tax increases to support higher pay and benefits a contract bargaining issue with the governor.
So what’s next? Vermont’s public sector unions are still entitled to organize and bargain with state government, school districts, and municipalities. The resulting contracts will still cover wages, benefits, working conditions and grievance procedures for all employees in the defined bargaining unit. But the unions can no longer automatically pocket “agency fees” (of as much as 85 percent of full union dues) from employees who want no part of the union’s political activities.
The Janus ruling inevitably means that more workers will decide not to pay money to a union advocating against their own political preferences. The National Education Association is projecting a 14 percent decline in membership.
An article by Alana Samuels in The Atlantic (6/27/18) describes how some unions are reconceptualizing their relation to prospective members. The United Domestic Workers of America represents Medicaid-funded home health care workers in California in a contrived “pseudo-union” it lobbied into existence. (The Vermont legislature succumbed to the same pressure in 2014.)
An earlier Supreme Court ruling struck down agency fees payable to this pseudo-union. So, according to its executive director, UDW “had to prove it was providing a valuable service to members and their clients that went above and beyond bargaining over pay.” It launched a home-care registry that matched workers with potential employers, and started offering free CPR and dietary classes to discuss with workers how to feed clients with special dietary needs. It did all this and more on a budget that was 30 percent lower than what it had been before the [Court] decision.
Not surprisingly, VSEA and VT-NEA are moaning about the impact of the Janus case. But that case doesn’t restrain the unions from conducting their core functions — representing the interests of workers to their employers.
The ruling will push those unions, like UDW, to better market their services to attract members who see an advantage in belonging. It will likely reduce the union’s temptation to use union funds to support coalitions to advance unrelated causes that a significant number of prospective union members disapprove of.
That’s a lot healthier for the unions than collaborating with government to coerce non-members to pay fees to finance political activities that they find offensive. Thomas Jefferson would have understood.
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.
8 thoughts on “McClaughry: A course change for public sector unions”
Many Vermonters want actual substantially measurable change in Vermont towards minimum to zero taxes & fees, small Government as in one which provides public safety & essential services only, regulations kept at the minimum necessary for the health & welfare of the States Citizens & the environment. Unlike what todays Vermont Legislators would have you believe the so-called Liberals, Progressive, Democrats, Socialists, Democrat-Socialists, Communists, & left leaning Independents only care for money, power, as well as their agenda being forced upon everybody, & in Vermont they just ignore disregard all who disagree especially the tens-of-thousands of VTs Patriotic Constitutional Conservatives who love America that voted for prosperity & progress with President Trump. Just as is happening around the Country in long time held/controlled States, Cities, Towns & villages are being radically changed into permanently poor, filthy debt ridden meat grinders because of an almost 100% guaranteed voting base dumbed down “common core” educated populace that keeps putting anti-American, anti-US & VT Constitutions, anti profits, anti private property, anti Religion, anti Individuality, anti questioning or seeking facts, anti America / Americans / Vermont 1st. I could go on and on, but my original reason for commenting was to state that Vermont will never get the budget down, & nevermind all this do nothing virtue signaling pat each other on the back zero benefit expensive legislation. Serious reform of State/ municipal spending, the public unions, & a complete review of all the leftist news, private corps & organizations outright abusing, misusing, & misleading donators as well as taxpayers about their true status is needed. These companies lie & masquerade as non profits when in reality they are heavily leftist political organizations, which aren’t open toall for membership & provide no public benefit & the politically biased one sided news companies are really agenda driven propaganda companies all of whom are lieing to receive taxpayer funded support which will not end until we clean out Montpelier. Leftist demagogues control most of the sources sucking up taxpayer money including the Vermont Govt, Vermonts’ General Assembly, public sector unions, & the non profits of interest & useful to their leftist agenda. My guesstimation is at least 70% of every FY State budget is fixed unchangeable by contracts, memoranda, agreements, & law makes State employee pay & benefits, which includes retirement benefits for current & future retirees untouchable for changes. Vermont ‘s total unfunded Government liabilities stands at $8,707,979,583
The fat cats running the unions are screaming not because some non paying dues folks in their view get a free ride, but because they have less larder to put in their pockets.
There should be no such thing as public sector unions. All they do is further distance the public from the people spending the our money. With public unions we have NO SAY in how they spend our money.
Beautifully written and completely understandable article. This is a great explanation of how the unions leverage the “if you want to work, you must pay us to campaign against you”. This had been way to long in coming. Unions started a long time ago to keep employers from terrible working conditions, and were effective. But they evolved into a ‘workers revolt’ to fence in industries and public sector jobs to promote the unions, not the workers. Where in this country are people forced to work for less than a decent wage? Certainly not in the public sector. When the guy standing next to and talking to his fellow workers alongside our highways, and one guy with a shovel, you can see the unstoppable creep of unionized govt workers. We’re paying hundreds of dollars an hour for one guy with a shovel. And woe to the citizen who objects.
Exactly – the unions in the public sector should be dissolved.
The big public education monopoly owns many of our elected officials. Representative Sharpe, (former union teacher and union money grab beneficiary) sits with and rubs elbows with union brass quite often, he doesn’t even try to hide it. When my family testified in front of the Vt house and Senate education committees, Sharpe was a good union puppet and prefaced our testimony with his anti-choice blab. He must be very proud of his allegiance to a big union and willingness to harm Vt children and families.
The coffers of the unions and the DNC are going to feel the pinch,way beyond time.
Very fine essay, John. Thank you.
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