Currently about half of the states allow public sector unions to charge non-members “agency fees” for the cost of bargaining contracts. Whether or not unions will be able to continue taking dues money from non-members to use on politics will come down to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Friedrichs vs. the California Teachers Association.
The plaintiffs—represented by a non-profit group called the Center for Individual Rights—argue that, because the government employs them, all union activity is inherently political. Therefore, being forced to pay so-called agency fees is a violation of the employees’ freedom of speech.
Indeed, it’s hard to argue that the unions’ activities are not political. Public sector unions and Democrats, after all, share a common interest. They both advocate for ever-bigger government through raising taxes, and unions contribute quite a lot of money to Democrat candidate to ensure this shared interest is pushed. Republicans, on the other hand, are constantly at odds with public sector unions, first in campaigns and then in budget battles.
A decision in favor of the plaintiffs would be monumental. As the Washington Post put it, the public sector would effectively become right-to-work nationwide. No longer would the state (or local) government take money every month from its own employees and give that money to the union bosses who make decisions on campaign donations.
That’s perhaps why Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who relied on significant public union support in his 2012 campaign, decided to join a legal brief encouraging the Supreme Court to allow unions to continue taking these agency fees. Among other points, the brief argues,
“…the absence of secure funding may create skewed incentives for unions to make excessive bargaining demands or disparage management as antagonistic to labor, in order to encourage employees to give financial support. State experiences show that a well-funded union is a more stable bargaining partner and that negotiating with such a partner ‘lead[s] to greater labor peace and stability.’”
We have a couple of questions for Ferguson, based on his convenient reasoning:
- When have public sector unions not made “excessive bargaining demands” despite their power to charge agency fees?
- And, considering the daily strikes initiated by the Washington Education Association (WEA) this year, is it really fair to say that—under the current system—negotiating with public sector unions who get to take money from non-members “lead[s] to greater labor peace and stability?”
Based on experience, public sector unions will always make “excessive bargaining demands” with or without their ability to charge agency fees—it’s just what they do. As far as “greater labor peace and stability,” we’ll talk when the WEA can make it a full school year without striking.
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