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Public employee unions may have fleeced taxpayers one time too many. Two court cases involving Illinois residents resisting forced union fees and representation may give the US Supreme Court the opportunity to restore employee and taxpayer freedoms.
The High Court agreed to consider Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31 on September 28. This case involves a state employee (Mark Janus) who argues that his requirement to pay fees to the union (AFSCME) violates his First Amendment rights. Unions require such fees even of nonunion members, like Janus, saying nonunion members benefit from union lobbying. Janus is asking the Court to overrule a 1977 decision, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, that allows public unions to force nonmembers to pay a “fair share” of the collective bargaining costs. The justices will likely hear oral arguments in early 2018 and issue an opinion by the end of June.
In a column defending the union’s practices, the executive director of AFSCME Council 31 says the union is giving workers the ability to speak with one voice for everyone’s benefit. “When working people have the freedom to speak up together through unions, we make progress together that benefits everyone,” Roberta Lynch wrote in the State Journal-Register.
Yet it’s hard to substantiate Lynch’s claim that “everyone” benefits considering Illinois’ staggering public pension obligations, the result of years of unions lobbying state lawmakers. In June, the Illinois Policy Institute reported that Illinois has $250 billion in public pension debt, and a credit rating service has downgraded the state’s rating to “one notch above … ‘junk.’” Things have gotten so dire that more than one Illinois observer has suggested dividing the state into at least two parts because of Illinois’ debts.
The second case is Hill v. SEIU, in which an in-home assistant to individuals with special needs says she does not want to be forced to be represented by a union. Under Illinois law, some private individuals who are paid with public funds must be represented by a union. The union, of course, regularly lobbies lawmakers for special interests with which individuals may disagree. The Supreme Court has not yet announced whether it will take up this case.
The Janus and Hill cases have far-reaching implications into other policy areas such as education. These cases are making headlines not long after the Supreme Court was divided on Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, where a California public school teacher objected to requirements that government employees pay union fees even if they are not union members.
“Both of these cases are huge,” says Rebecca Friedrichs. The Court was divided 4-4 on Friedrichs’s case after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. “What’s happening with unions is that they have been given legally the permission to coerce fees from people who don’t want to pay them and to force their representation on people that don’t want to be represented by them,” Friedrichs told me in an interview.
Should the Court limit public employee unions’ ability to fleece individuals to fund special interests, the nation’s two largest teacher unions may find themselves in a bind. These interest groups have chummy relationships with progressive elites thanks to their taxpayer-funded bankroll. The American Federation for Teachers and the National Education Association regularly contribute to political action committees that fund progressive candidates, along with a hodgepodge of leftist causes, including the National Council of La Raza, the Sierra Club, and groups that advocated for Obamacare’s passage.
One would expect teacher unions to focus their resources on making sure students have quality learning options. Yet the unions consistently fight efforts to give students more opportunities in education. In recent years, unions sued to stop education savings accounts in Arizona and Florida (losing handily) and are now supporting efforts to repeal a law that would give more Arizona children choices in education when their assigned public school isn’t serving them well. Unions also tried to block charter schools in Washington State and have fought parental choice in education around the country for decades.
Should the Court rule in favor the Janus and Hill plaintiffs, public sector workers will have more workplace freedom, and unions won’t be able to play the bully as easily in public life.
Former union members agree: “The unions’ ‘benefits’ aren’t worth the financial or moral cost,” Friedrichs says.