A chance to make union dues a choice

The Supreme Court could end a corrupt practice of public-sector labor

by Mark Mix

The Gilded Age. The Spoils System. Tammany Hall. In American politics, corrupt bargains between politicians and their supporters are supposed to be a thing of the past. But in the public sector, a troubling relationship persists between elected officials and one powerful constituency.

Thanks largely to favors granted by pliant politicians, government union officials enjoy extraordinary special privileges and wield immense political clout. This influence often comes at the expense of taxpayers and independent-minded civil servants, but an impending Supreme Court decision could change all that.

In the 25 states that lack right-to-work laws, nonunion public employees can be forced to pay union dues or fees to keep their jobs. Although union officials are technically prohibited from forcing nonunion workers to pay for political activism, this rule is difficult to enforce and often ignored. Many nonunion employees are unaware of their right to opt out. Others are simply told that all union dues are mandatory. Even employees who are aware of their rights may be reluctant to “rock the boat” in a unionized workplace.

For employees who choose to assert their workplace rights, the opt-out process can be tortuous. Many unions rely on bureaucratic ruses to discourage independent-minded workers from stepping out of line. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1000, one of the largest public-sector unions in California, is actually facing a lawsuit for trying to keep collecting full dues from unwilling employees.

According to that lawsuit, several of the plaintiffs never received notice from SEIU Local 1000 about their workplace rights. Others were only notified after a union-designated window period for objecting to the payment of full dues had already expired.

Nonunion employees who did receive the union’s notice in a timely fashion found that it downplayed their right to opt out. Information about refraining from paying dues for union politics was printed in small, beige text on a pink background and inserted below the union’s more prominent pitch for full membership.

This and similar arrangements give public-sector union officials an immense amount of cash to spend on their political agenda. According to the National Institute for Labor Relations Research, government unions spent at least $564 million on politics in 2013 and 2014. That money buys access and special favors while insulating union officials from public accountability.

This may be bad for taxpayers and civil servants, but it’s perfectly suited for ambitious politicians. Public-sector union officials enjoy extraordinary, government-granted privileges that would be considered absurd in any other context. To protect their exalted status, they lavish spending on favored political candidates. Once in office, those same politicians are tasked with overseeing and “negotiating” with the very unions that bankroll their electoral ambitions. Is it any wonder that so many states are facing huge budget crises?

Even if union officials scrupulously respected civil servants’ workplace rights, it’s unclear where to draw the line between union politics and workplace bargaining. Contract negotiations in the public sector inevitably touch on highly charged ideological issues, such as the size and scope of government. Yet nonunion employees who oppose a union’s bargaining tact have no choice but to pay for an activity that contradicts their political convictions.

The incestuous relationship between public-sector unions and politicians busts budgets and erodes democratic accountability. But without ready access to forced-dues cash, government unions’ political influence would decline dramatically. Fortunately, the Supreme Court has just agreed to hear a case that strikes at the heart of public-sector unions’ forced-dues privileges. In Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a group of nonunion public school teachers is challenging a union policy that requires them to pay any union dues at all to keep their jobs.

Friedrichs gives the court an opportunity to outlaw all mandatory union dues in the public sector. To be clear, such a ruling wouldn’t end government unions. Employees who genuinely support a labor organization would still be free to join up and pay dues. What it would do, however, is limit government unions’ outsized political influence.

Without a guaranteed stream of income from nonunion employees, union officials wouldn’t have nearly as much money to spend on friendly politicians. Moreover, unions that actually have to persuade employees to join and voluntarily contribute tend to be more focused on their members and less fixated on partisan politics.

Outlawing mandatory union dues or fees in the public sector would also limit the ability of union officials to handpick their negotiating partners in state and local government. Politicians who aren’t beholden to union special interests are more likely to strike better bargains for their constituents.

Ideally, no employee — public or private — would ever be forced to pay union dues to get or keep a job. In Friedrichs, the Supreme Court has a chance to restore the workplace rights of America’s civil servants and end the corrupting influence of public-sector forced dues on our political system.

Mark Mix is president of the National Right to Work Foundation.