The U.S. Supreme Court is about to rule on Janus v. AFSCME, a case that challenges the ability of public sector unions to force government workers to pay union dues. Depending on the scope of the ruling, this case could dramatically affect the political power of big labor in the United States.
The case hinges on the assertion by plaintiff Mark Janus, a public employee in Illinois, that everything a public sector union does is inherently political. As a result, Janus argues, even the so-called “agency fees” the union charges—ostensibly to fund nonpolitical activities such as contract negotiations—are a violation of his right to free speech. He’s got a strong case because he’s right: nearly everything public sector unions negotiate has a direct impact on public policy. Public sector unions are inherently political.
When a public sector union negotiates for increased pension benefits, for example, every other budget item is affected. In states like California and Illinois, costs for public employee pensions are exceeding 10 percent of total tax revenues in some cities and counties, crowding out other public services with no end in sight. And everywhere public sector unions are active, their impact on budgets, along with their negotiated work rules, significantly alter how our elected officials set policy priorities and how they manage our government agencies.
The stakes in the Janus case are massive. Nearly half of all unionized workers in the United States are government workers. Public sector unions collect and spend nearly $6 billion per year in the United States. About a third of that—a staggering sum of money—is actually spent on political campaigns and lobbying, while nearly all of the rest funds “non-political” activity that includes get-out-the-vote efforts, public education, and advocacy that stops just short of the legal definition of being explicitly political in nature, yet remains blatantly political in its intent. Nearly all of public sector union money is contributed to Democrats, much of it in countless local elections where spending is not tracked.
Public sector union power is concentrated in large urban states such as California where over $1 billion per year is collected by these unions, and the result is clear. They have candidates active, and winning, in every political race from the top of the ticket all the way down to local agencies. Whenever necessary, and without blinking, they will spend millions on races as small as a school board seat. In 2005, when California governor Schwarzenegger put four citizens initiatives onto the state ballot that threatened public sector union power, they spent over $100 million in their successful campaign to defeat these propositions.
Government Unions are Different from Private Unions
The differences between public sector unions and private sector unions are profound. A public sector union doesn’t have to exist in a competitive commercial environment where, if their demands are too extravagant, they will put the company out of business. To get more money, they just demand higher taxes. And unlike private sector unions, public sector unions elect their own bosses, spending money on political campaigns to elect the officials who will then be tasked with managing them. Moreover, millions of zealous public sector union members populate the machinery of government, willing and able to make life a bit more difficult for any other interest group that may challenge their power.
Spokespersons for public sector unions, typically working for the finest PR firms money can buy, frequently attempt to convince voters that they are protecting ordinary “working families” from greedy business interests. But despite being devastatingly persuasive, this is a fabrication. Public sector unions only look out for government workers which, in the states controlled by government unions, will often make twice as much in pay and benefits as private sector workers doing similar jobs—yet those private sector workers must pay the taxes to support the overmarket pay and benefits for these government workers. As for business interests, the bigger a company is, the less likely they are to challenge these unions. It is easy to see why.
Big corporations not only don’t want to be targeted by public sector unions with retaliatory legislation that could hurt their bottom line. Many of them actually prefer doing business with these unions in charge of state and local governments. They can bid on bloated government public works projects. They can underwrite municipal bonds of dubious necessity and collect lucrative fees. They can help manage the hundreds of billions sitting in public sector pension funds. And they can benefit when excessive government regulations create barriers to entry that are too severe for smaller, potentially disruptive competitors to withstand.
There is a fundamental conflict between the natural agenda of government unions and the public interest. Because government unions prosper when government expands, regardless of the cost or benefit of new government programs. Even worse, when government programs fail, or when government policies harm the public interest—such as encouraging the mass migration of destitute, marginally assimilable immigrants—the role of government expands to address the crisis. Whenever this happens, more people become members of government unions, increasing their wealth and power.
How the Unions Intend to Thwart the Janus Ruling
If the Janus ruling makes it possible for public employees to refuse to pay union dues, these public employees will themselves share the moral conflict inherent in public sector unionism, pitting their own interests against the broader public interest. One may hope the majority of public employees will welcome working in a meritocracy, where their talent and skill and hard work will provide them with opportunities for raises and promotions. But those government employees who support the left-wing political agenda of their union, or who prefer to fall back on work rules that give them job security and overmarket pay based on seniority, probably will remain members.
But even if the Janus ruling gives public employees the right to get out of their union, will they be able to? Across the United States, union-controlled legislatures are doing their utmost to stop them from leaving.
For example, the California state legislature in the past few months has passed several laws to mitigate the effects of Janus. Two new laws would make it difficult, if not impossible, for employers to discuss the pros and cons of unionization with employees. Two more would preclude local governments from unilaterally honoring employee requests to stop paying union dues. Another law has modified the public records act so that only unions can gain access to employee information, preventing third parties from advocating against unionization. And across the country, labor contracts are being rewritten to make it a bureaucratic obstacle course to opt-out of union membership. Some of these contracts even require employees to quit every year, by automatically reinstating their membership (and dues withholding) annually.
When unions of government workers control a state legislature—and they do in the populous blue states of California and Illinois and elsewhere—they can do almost anything they want.
To say that government unions are one of the root causes of America’s deepest challenges is not an overstatement. They are one of the biggest funders of left-wing politicians and activists, enabling the Left to a degree far out of proportion to its actual grassroots support among Americans. They distort the political process to further their own interests. They intimidate and coopt business interests, especially in the financial sector. And they benefit whenever and wherever society fails, and government expands its power and reach in response.
Public sector unions should be illegal. The Janus v. AFSCME ruling will not go that far. But it is a gigantic step in the right direction.
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