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Lewis Morris / July 3, 2018

The Supreme Fallout for Public Unions

Public unions lost a lot of power when the Supreme Court ruled workers don’t have to pay.

Last week’s Supreme Court ruling shooting down public-sector unions’ power to charge fees to nonmembers has Democrats and unions wondering what the future has in store for them.

For years, public-sector employees in several states were compelled to pay fees to unions even if they were not members. The unions claimed that these so-called nonmember “agency fees” were used for collective bargaining and administrative purposes that benefited all workers regardless of membership status. While true to a point, the reality was that public-sector unions were putting this money to work for their own political ends and forcing nonmembers to go along.

That came to an end in the 5-4 decision in Janus v. AFSCME. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, stated, “This procedure violates the First Amendment and cannot continue. Neither an agency fee nor any other payment to the union may be deducted from a non-member’s wages, nor may any other attempt be made to collect such a payment, unless the employee affirmatively consents to pay.”

The majority’s support of employees’ First Amendment rights did not sit well with the Supreme Court’s judicial despots. Justice Elena Kagan, choosing to read her dissent from the bench, said, “The majority has overruled Abood for no exceptional or special reason, but because it never liked the decision. It has overruled Abood because it wanted to.”

It’s actually more complicated than that. The 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education decision to which she referred infringed on employees’ First Amendment rights by compelling them to financially support union political stances that they didn’t actually support. Kagan’s dissent seemed less like a reasoned legal counterargument and more like sour grapes.

During oral arguments in the Janus case on Feb. 26, the Court’s left wing seemed less concerned about whether an employee’s constitutional rights were being infringed and more concerned about how a potential reversal of Abood would impact public-sector unions’ membership and ability to collect fees.

Their concern is not surprising. Virtually all political contributions by public-sector unions go to Democrat candidates and causes. Janus will directly impact five million public-sector employees in 22 states and the District of Columbia. This may lead to reduced membership when employees are freed from the yolk placed on them by the unions. It will most assuredly lead to unions’ diminished capacity to support leftist political candidates and causes.

Unions are predicting the end of the world, but all that has really happened is that they can no longer play such a rigged game. For decades, the twisted partnership between Democrats and unions was forged on the unions’ ability to coerce support from their membership and to then use that as leverage so Democrats could craft laws favoring union leadership but not necessarily its members. In return, unions provided financial support and votes to Democrats. All Janus has done is remind unions that they must now work for the support of all their members or face a reduced membership and reduced political power.

Workers have not been silenced by this decision. On the contrary, they have been freed from being forced to support causes with which they do not agree. There will not be widespread abuse of employees by unscrupulous employers. This ruling only impacts public-sector unions, which even a statist like Franklin Delano Roosevelt viewed as dangerous to the smooth operation of government.

The most obvious and realistic change that will come from this ruling is that public-sector unions must work harder to focus on the needs of employees rather than just spending their time rubbing shoulders with Democrat politicians. And that’s what unions were supposed to be about in the first place.

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