October 9, 2017

Supreme Court's threat to unions

Governing- Late last week, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it will add a case critical to the future of public-sector unions to its docket. With President Donald Trump's appointment of conservative-leaning Justice Neil Gorsuch, many expect the court to rule against the unions.

Such a decision would energize the recent resurgence of state laws that effectively reduce the power of unions in both the public and private sector. Expecting the worst, unions are already preparing for a potential exodus of members and a loss of revenue.

“I’d place a bet that this doesn’t bode well for public-sector unions,” says Patrick Flavin, a political scientist at Baylor University who frequently writes about labor union politics and policy.

The lead plaintiff, Mark Janus, is a child support worker in Illinois who argues his free speech rights are being violated by the requirement that he pay the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the largest public employee union in the country, even though he chose not to join it and does not support its political views and positions.

Illinois is currently one of 22 states where nonunion members still have to pay so-called agency fees to unions that negotiate on their behalf.

If the Supreme Court rules that making agency fees mandatory is unconstitutional, unions in those states fear the loss of revenue from existing nonunion members and the loss of more members, who could quit unions if granted the right to avoid the paycheck deduction. Such a scenario would weaken unions' bargaining power and their political clout.

“It is an enormously big deal,” says Harvard law professor Benjamin Sachs, who often writes about labor issues. “Unions have to provide services and representation equally to everyone in a bargaining unit. But if you can get those services for free, a lot of people won’t pay them. You have a classic free-rider situation.”

... “If unions can convince all their members to continue to pay dues voluntarily, they’ll be able to survive,” says Sachs, the law professor.

Some, however, think the unions will have to do more than that to gain or keep members.

“In order for the public-sector labor movement to recover, they’d have to pretty substantially change the model they’re operating under,” says Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, an assistant professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University. “One strategy is to become much more service-oriented.”

To entice people to stay or join, unions could expand their services to include additional low-cost insurance, counseling services to help with on-the-job stress or training programs to help advance careers. This has already been a strategy in some right-to-work states, says Hertel-Fernandez.

But if an anti-union decision is reached, unions may not have the resources to offer more services. In fact, according to Sachs, they might consider cutting off some of their services to nonmembers -- like refusing to provide help with grievances.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Another example of lousy labor politics coming home to roost.

I used to belong to AFSCME and all encounters I had with local, state, and national officials (including a quick drop-in visit to DC headquarters) were frustrating and pointless. The few inner workings I learned from a local officer were even more appalling. The national newsletter was masturbation-in-print by the top two officials and it once featured a puff piece on McDonalds, one of the most viciously anti-union corporations.

We desperately need sharp, strong unions, and public sector ones are the last foothold in the economy, but I cannot summon sympathy for AFSCME. If they lose this case, their decades of ignoring member voices will doom them. Maybe their folly will serve as a warning to others.