Recently, the Supreme Court made a narrow 5-4 decision in an organized labor case. The question was whether or not the plaintiff Mark Janus would be required to have union dues automatically deducted from his paycheck like a tax without ever joining the union. The matter was made even worse because the union used those dues for political activity that the plaintiff opposed. So he was forced to subsidize a political position he disagreed with. The court agreed with Janus. The repercussions may be huge.
Janus works in Illinois and the union that took his money was a local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). He is a state government worker.
I'm not a fan of unions. I grew up in the South where organized labor was rare so unions were strange to me. Historically, unions grew up in the northeast, upper Midwest and the docks on the west coast. They were particularly strong in coal country where workers were terribly abused a century ago. They were formed to improve working conditions, worker safety and higher wages. These were important issues and the unionization of the workforce was a valuable and important advancement in human rights. Not surprisingly, the industrial owners fought this effort. Change can be difficult.
Unions were developed in private industry where there were profits that the workers felt they had a right to share. That's a great point – most of us would agree that workers should be able to share in the wealth their labor helps create. Profit-sharing is a progressive idea that is common today. Great businesses want to share their profits with the workforce, in part to encourage them to perform even better.
I believe that when you transition from private sector to public sector, the landscape changes dramatically. By definition, the public sector does not monetarily profit from its work for the workers to share. If the issue is to improve worker pay, then that can only be achieved by the government (employer in the public sector) taking in more revenue. Almost always, that means higher taxes.
AFSCME may collectively bargain for higher wages, but the federal union (American Federation of Government Employees or AFGE) is prohibited by law from doing this. Only the elected members of Congress can adjust the wage and salary scale for all members of the United States government workforce. The greatest Democrat in our nation's history, Franklin Roosevelt, always felt that it was improper for public sector employees to unionize and collectively bargain.
I agree with FDR. I think it is valid for a union, private sector or public, to organize to improve working conditions. But I don't believe that public sector employees should collectively bargain or strike against the taxpayers who are their neighbors.
AFSCME argued that they were justified to confiscate the dues from employees like Mr. Janus because their efforts have helped raise his wages. That might be a valid point, but the issue always devolves to freedom of choice: doesn't Mr. Janus have the right to join or not to join; the right to pay dues or not? The Supreme Court has now answered that question.
Coincidently, AFSCME and similar unions hurt their case when they engaged in expensive political activity and donations, to the benefit of one side and detriment to the other. To some degree, they were their own worst enemy.
Union membership was at its nadir during the 1950s when Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House. Private sector union membership has fallen precipitously. The only growth in unions since then has been in the public sector. So the question becomes, will public sector employees withdraw their support for the unions? Will they decide not to join and pay dues when, as a result of the Janus decision, they are no longer required to do so?
While we don't know the answer yet since the decision is so fresh, my guess is that public sector union membership will decline. It is a natural human reaction to cut costs and improve individual profitability. An extra hundred dollars a month in saved union dues might seem like crumbs to some, but to hard-working Americans, it is real money.
Some people will continue to participate in the unions and they are certainly free to make their individual choice. More power to them. And they might join for a reason like protection. For example, teachers may choose to join their union for legal protection against the threat of an otherwise ruinous lawsuit.
But Mr. Janus will not. I suspect he will have others, perhaps many, join his ranks.