Public unions appear to be in a cold sweat over this week’s Supreme Court case, Janus vs AFSCME, Council 31, a case that focuses on whether an employee can be forced to pay dues to a union. Current law in some states mandates that a non-union employee that’s covered by a collective bargaining agreement can have dues garnished from his pay, based on the notion that he is benefiting from that union’s work. The argument in favor is that those who don’t contribute are “free-loaders” on the dues of those who have, an argument I recently addressed as circular and bootstrapping.

This arrangement has been under steady erosion in recent years, as “right-to-work” laws have been enacted at the state level (currently, 28 states are right-to-work), and, were it not for Justice Scalia’s passing, would likely have been knocked down by the Supreme Court in the 2016 case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which ended in a 4-4 tie at the Court.

Evidence of this cold sweat? Certain shenanigans currently being pursued by unions in New York State. Public worker unions are engaged in a multi-pronged effort to get non-members to actually join the unions (despite “agency fees” already being extracted from their wages), to write restrictive rules that make leaving the union difficult (e.g. setting a 10 day window, once a year, for opting out), and to get the law changed to legalize these restrictive rules.

Unions, operating in a free market, serve a useful and important role. They can add value to employees and hiring practices in various ways while improving the lot of their members, thus producing a win-win situation. They can also balance out situations where employers have what might be perceived as excessive leverage over employees. Freedom of association and freedom of contract explicitly protect the rights of workers to unionize… in a free market.

Matters change when government is involved. First, public sector unions are a whole other animal. Public sector jobs are by definition not free market, established as they are via government coercion (both legislative and via taxation), and this puts the entire premise of public unions on shaky ground. Even a man as progressive as FDR felt that public unions were a whole different matter than private unions. Second, unions nowadays seem to devote more and more of their efforts to lobbying government for rules that favor their existence, protect them, and bestow special entitlements and immunities. Consider a sordid episode from Teamsters Local 25 in Boston, whose members escaped extortion convictions because of a legal loophole that permits otherwise criminal behavior if it’s done while carrying out “legitimate union business.” Union thuggery is a cliche, but we mustn’t think it’s only the stuff of movies.

Unions should provide benefits that make employees want to join, rather than forcing compulsion by leveraging politicians. Unions can provide training, financial, legal, and other forms of counseling, representation for dispute resolution, and similar values-added. This, not coercion, is how the free-loader problem should be addressed. But, unions, recognizing that there’s far greater ease and certainty in coercion than persuasion, have opted instead to devote their efforts to buying political influence with their members’ money. This is the crux of Mark Janus’s argument: that the union that takes his money doesn’t voice his beliefs or opinions. In a just world, where liberty remained paramount, Mr. Janus should be arguing freedom of contract and freedom of association. Alas, both these fundamental liberties have been eroded down to near-nothingness, and government has established that it is ready, willing, and able to infringe deeply on our economic liberties. Still, if Janus can prevail in this case, it won’t matter, practically speaking, which rights he leveraged. An injustice will be remedied.

Perhaps, then, unions might adopt an approach more compatible with a free society. If their coercive power is weakened, they may be forced to resort to persuasion – of the moral, not leg-breaking variety – to keep their membership rolls and financial coffers filled. Persuasion is free-market, and a shift in the direction of free market tenets might be what actually saves unions from an extinction that, in their current thuggish form, they currently deserve.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.


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