Tag: labor law

The Myth of Public-Sector Unions’ “Free Rider” Problem

Last month, the Supreme Court’s agreed to review Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31 (Cato filed a brief in support of the plaintiffs). The case is a First Amendment challenge to the “agency fees” that must be paid to a public-sector union by non-members. As a matter of existing First Amendment law, no employee may be compelled to join a union or contribute money to fund a union’s direct political activities, such as political ads. In roughly 22 states (the 28 “right-to-work” states outlaw agency fees), unions may compel non-members to pay agency fees that (ostensibly) only reflect the cost of the union’s representational activities, such as bargaining over wages and working conditions. The agency fee is the product of the Supreme Court’s decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977), in which the Court prohibited public-sector unions from compelling non-members to support political speech, but allowed for the compelled support of the union’s other “non-political” activities. 
 
The plaintiff in Janus—like the 2015 Friedrichs case that stalemated after Justice Scalia’s death (in which Cato also filed a brief)—claims that, for public employees, the distinction in Abood between “political” and “non-political” is illusory because the terms and conditions of public employment are inherently a matter of public concern. A teachers union negotiates with a school system over salaries and benefits packages, merit pay versus seniority, the standards for teacher evaluation, and the controversial “tenure” provisions that in some states make it nearly impossible to fire even serial abusers. Each of these represents a core, political issue in education policy, and a teacher who believes that, say, merit-based pay systems would improve the quality of teaching in the school system (where perhaps her own children may attend) can currently be forced to fund negotiations against it.

Against Forced Unionization

The Supreme Court has long applied exacting scrutiny to limitations placed on the freedoms of speech and association. Unfortunately, the Court has not extended such protection to those forcibly unionized.

In Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977), the Court accepted that promoting “labor peace”—limiting the number of competing workplace interests that bargain over the conditions of employment—was an interest so compelling that a state may mandate its employees’ association with a labor union, forcing them to subsidize that union’s speech and submit to it as their exclusive representative for negotiating with the government regarding their employment. Since that time, more than a dozen states have forcibly unionized independent contractors who are paid through Medicaid.

In 2003, Illinois forced its home healthcare workers to join and pay dues to the Service Employees International Union as their sole representative before the state. Workers subject to this coerced association have challenged the law as a violation of their First Amendment rights and the case is now before the Supreme Court. Cato, joined by the National Federation of Independent Business, has filed an amicus brief in support. We argue that Abood was wrong when it was decided and should now be overturned. Abood simply assumed without analysis that the Supreme Court had already recognized “labor peace” as a “compelling interest.”

But the cases Abood relied on only regarded “labor peace” as justifying Congress’s exercise of its Commerce Clause authority to regulate labor relations, not as a basis to override workers’ First Amendment rights—and a Commerce Clause analysis is logically irrelevant to the First Amendment. Furthermore, Abood turns the logic of the First Amendment on its head: Unions are designated as the exclusive representatives of those employees that are compelled to support them for the sole purpose of suppressing the speech of dissenting employees, but under Abood it is exactly this suppression of speech that validates coerced association under the First Amendment. Such logic can’t be reconciled with the Court’s strict scrutiny of laws in other First Amendment contexts.

Even if the Court chooses to maintain Abood, it should reject the coercive programs at issue here because they’re unsupported by Abood’s rationale and serve no other compelling state interest. The homecare workers subject to the law aren’t employed by the state. Although they’re paid through a Medicaid disbursal, every crucial aspect of the employment relationship, including workplace conditions, hiring, and firing, is determined by the individual cared-for by the worker. The union is thus limited to petitioning the state for greater pay and benefits. Given this limited scope, there can be no serious claim that SEIU’s exclusive representation of some workers has freed Illinois from any great burden due to “conflicting demands” from other workers. Whatever Abood’s long-term vitality, that flawed case doesn’t support the compelled unionization of workers who are in no way managed by the state.

The Supreme Court will hear Harris v. Quinn on January 21.

This blogpost was co-authored by Cato legal associate Lauren Barlow.

Protecting the Rights of Workers Against Forced Association

The Labor Management Relations Act (a.k.a. the Taft-Hartley Act) was passed in 1947 in order to curb the tide of unfair labor practices that had arisen since the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was passed in 1935. The NLRA established a legal regime that was friendly to unions and unfriendly to the rights of workers who dissented from attempts to unionize workplaces. Unions have many tools at their disposal to ease the path to unionization, but the government should not prefer the rights of those who wish to be unionized at the expense of those who do not.

One part of Taft-Hartley, Section 302, addresses the problem of corruption between unions and employers by prohibiting employers from giving “any money or thing of value” to a union seeking to represent its employees. Martin Mulhall is a 40-year employee for the Mardi Gras greyhound racetrack and casino in Hollywood, Florida, and he opposes the efforts of Local 355 to unionize Mardi Gras’s employees. Mr. Mulhall’s desire not to be unionized is no less valid or constitutionally protected than those who push for unionization, and thus he is a perfect example of an employee for whom the Taft-Hartley Act passed to protect.

Mr. Mulhall alleges that, in violation of Section 302, Local 355 and Mardi Gras exchanged “things of value” in order to smooth the path to unionization. In exchange for the union agreeing not to picket, boycott, or strike against Mardi Gras, as well as for financially supporting a ballot initiative that legalized slot machine gambling, Mardi Gras agreed to support Local 355’s efforts to organize its employees. Specifically, Mardi Gras gave the union access to employee records and to its facilities in order to engage in organizing efforts during non-working hours. Additionally, and most crucially, Mardi Gras agreed to waive its right to a secret-ballot election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board as well as its right to contest any unfair labor practices committed by the union during the process of organizing the workers.