- - Thursday, January 7, 2016


If you belonged to a club that benefited other members at your expense, would you consider leaving? Would you resent it if the club collected dues from all members but only provided benefits to a select few?

Of course you would. Across the country, voluntary organizations thrive because all of their members derive benefits from joining and participating. Churches, civic associations, and hobbyist groups exist because supporters voluntarily decide these groups merit their time, energy and money.

Only one type of private organization doesn’t play by the same rules. For decades, union officials have been empowered by federal and state law to collect mandatory dues from employees who haven’t actually joined a union. But a landmark Supreme Court case could change all that for America’s civil servants.

This Monday, the Supreme Court will hear Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a case brought by 10 California public school teachers. The teachers are challenging a policy that requires them to pay dues to a union they don’t belong to or support. The case builds on two recent National Right to Work Foundation Supreme Court victories — Knox v. SEIU (2012) and Harris v. Quinn (2014) — that raised serious doubts about the constitutionality of mandatory union dues or fees for public employees.

In both Knox and Harris, the Supreme Court ruled against forced dues on narrow grounds, but the Friedrichs case places a broad First Amendment challenge to all public sector forced dues squarely and unavoidably before the High Court. In Knox, Justice Alito’s majority opinion called forced dues for public employees “something of an anomaly” in American jurisprudence. In Friedrichs, the plaintiffs are asking the Court to correct that anomaly once and for all.

The injustice of forcing employees to subsidize an organization they don’t belong to and disagree with should be readily apparent, but the arguments in Friedrichs also highlight the faulty logic behind unions’ own justifications for collecting forced dues. California Attorney General Kamala Harris, an ambitious politician whose career has benefited from union bosses’ largesse, actually admitted that union bargaining disadvantages many teachers in a brief filed in support of the California Teachers Association.

Wrote Ms. Harris: “Unions do have substantial latitude to advance bargaining positions that … run counter to the economic interests of some employees.” In other words, Ms. Harris implicitly concedes that many teachers are being forced to pay money for a union to advocate policies contrary to their own best interests.

This admission comes as no surprise to the plaintiffs, who argue that they are disadvantaged by union policies that favor colleagues with more seniority. But it is striking to see a Big Labor ally publicly acknowledge that union policies hurt the same teachers who would currently lose their jobs if they refused to contribute to the union’s coffers.

Naturally, union apologists have advanced other arguments to defend Big Labor’s forced-dues privileges. One popular refrain is that public sector unions couldn’t attract and retain members without the financial backing of every employee in a given workplace.

This specious claim is easily disproved. For one, many unions continue to thrive in Right to Work states, which have outlawed mandatory dues. Moreover, even if public sector unions lose their forced-dues privileges, they will retain immense influence over employee-employer relations, something that will continue to induce many workers to join.

American labor law, which applies even in states that have outlawed mandatory union dues, empowers union officials in unionized workplaces to impose a contract — which covers wages and working conditions — on all employees, including those who don’t belong to the union. This unparalleled power helps unions attract dues-paying members who have decided they want a say in an organization that, for better or worse, has been handed a monopoly on workplace bargaining.

Of course, union apologists don’t like to publicly acknowledge unions’ privileged workplace status because doing so would undercut the rationale for their forced-dues powers. But that shouldn’t discourage the Supreme Court from striking down forced union dues in the public sector. Government employees should decide for themselves if financially supporting a union is really in their best interest, something that even union defenders have admitted is often not the case.

Mark Mix is president of the Right to Work Foundation.

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