February 17, 2018
Public-sector unions on the brink
The clock is winding down to a court showdown with public-sector unions in the Janus v. AFSCME case.
On February 26, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the request of Mark Janus, a public-sector worker in Illinois, to overturn Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the 41-year-old precedent that allows public employee unions to collect mandatory dues from workers.
Janus's argument is that his First Amendment right to free speech is violated by compulsory unionism. Being forced to pay union dues, even if it's only in the form of an agency fee, is tantamount to forcing him to support a political agenda that he may disagree with. He further argues that there is no line between the unions' political activities and collective bargaining, since bargaining with the government affects taxes, spending, etc., all of which are political by nature.
Logic and the Constitution are on the side of Janus. If he prevails, the ramifications will be felt far and wide. To see why, consider the adverse effects that flowed from the Abood decision.
First, since 1977, membership in public-sector unions has exploded to about 7.2 million today. This has resulted in the coffers of the unions overflowing with money, much of which is devoted to political purposes. Union financial contributions skew local and state elections, favoring union allies.
As a result, many state and local governments in non-right to work states have become larger, more costly, and significantly harder to manage. Think how hard it is to fire an incompetent teacher or cop. Government officials are forced to bargain with those who can greatly influence election outcomes. This is a conflict of interest in the extreme, and it costs society greatly. Blue states like California, Connecticut, Illinois, and New Jersey, where public-sector unions are strong, are in a permanent fiscal crisis, mostly due to unaffordable and obscenely generous public-sector pensions.
This leads to a second factor. Because of excessive public-sector labor costs and pension commitments, many public service needs are starved for funds, including road maintenance, water and sewerage, and the like. Perhaps most pernicious is how human welfare funds get the short end while the unionized work force gets fatter. Where are all the progressive moralists on this? Why do unionized government employees get far better benefits than most of the taxpayers who pay for them?
Third, public-sector unions are one of the mainstays for the Democratic Party. In 2016, the teacher unions alone made $32 million in political contributions, 94 percent of which went to Democrats. Overall, public-sector unions contributed over $60 million in that election cycle. These unions are also a major source of volunteers for Democrat campaigns.
Fourth, because of the compulsion inherent in Abood, union bosses have been relieved of the responsibility of delivering good service to their membership. A recent AFSCME survey of its 1.6 million members found that a mere 35% of its members would pay unions dues if not required to do so. This echoes what happened in Wisconsin when Gov. Scott Walker passed right-to-work legislation. Public-sector union membership plummeted after the Walker reforms were put into effect. This shows how far out of touch public-sector unions are with their own membership.
If Janus wins, the public-sector unions will not disappear. But their gravy-train ride will be over. The unions will be, shall we say, civilized. Their knee-jerk political activity in support of the left will be curtailed. Many states and municipalities will be better able to manage themselves with union influence diminished. What's not to like about this?