public-sector unions

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.

Public-Sector Unions Survive to Fight Another Day

This morning, the Supreme Court disappointingly, but expectedly, split 4-4 in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. With Justice Antonin Scalia’s untimely death, one of the likely blockbusters of the term turned into a terse, one-sentence opinion: “The judgment is affirmed by an equally divided Court.”

“The judgment” was the Ninth Circuit’s decision, which sided with the unions on the question of whether forced union dues for public-sector workers violate the First Amendment. At stake in Friedrichs was whether public-sector unions would continue to be permitted, under a 1977 case called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, to take forced dues from non-members in order to fund the day-to-day activities of the union. In an alternate universe, one in which Scalia is still alive and sitting on the Court, Friedrichs would have almost assuredly overruled or severely limited Abood, essentially converting public-sector unions into “right to work” unions.  

The lack of a blockbuster decision in Friedrichs is one of the most significant immediate consequences of Scalia’s death. Few issues split the Court more starkly than unions, and there were clearly irreconcilable differences among the justices. Friedrichs was only argued on January 11, so the justices didn’t take too long to conclude that there was no way to decide the case with five justices in the majority, thus the thoroughly unsatisfying opinion today.

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