Curbing Public Employee Unions

  Little noticed among the media’s Downton Abbey-like coverage of the Trump White House is the pending Supreme Court decision in the case of Janus v the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) to overturn a 1977 precedent, by which public employee unions in the 23 states without “Right to Work Laws” can currently force employees to pay union dues – with a carve out” for dues which go to overt political activities. While the case is argued in terms of the constitutional issue of free speech, the real issues are economic and political, with public employee unions – educators; nurses; public safety workers; office workers – being instrumental in electing friendly (Democratic) politicians who then negotiate contracts with their union supporters for wages, benefits, and conditions of employment. The pending Janus decision promises to significantly change state and local politics in Blue and Purple states.

 The case:

The Janus case mimics a case brought by a group of California teachers and heard by the Supreme Court in 2016, shortly before the death of Antonin Scalia. Without Scalia’s vote, the Court deadlocked 4 to 4, and the advocates (including the Koch brothers) went looking for another plaintiff. Enter Mark Janus, an Illinois social worker who objects to paying $45 per month to AFSCME, and who objects to contract negotiations which will exceed the nearly-bankruypt state’s ability to pay. The case was heard on Monday; there is a strong presumption that Justice Gorsuch will join the conservative block, allowing the millions of  public employees in the 23 non-Right to Work states to opt out of labor unions if they so choose.

Union-friendly observers like Dana Milbanks of the Washington Post argue that removal of the 1977 bargain will unleash pubolic employee strikes, expand the scope of bargaining, and expand to include bar association dues, student association dues, continuing education requirements for doctors and all measures of calamity. Others argue that it will energize public employee unions who will now need to demonstrate to their workers that the union adds value.

And a broader perspective

    In the Depression era heyday, union organizing was limited to the private sector. In fact, the progressive Franklin Delano Roosevelt recognized that “All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management. The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations.” That said, the American labor market has evolved to the point where in 2017 union membership was 34.4% in the public sector compared to 6.5% in the private sector, with the overall 10.7% rate about half of what it had been 30 years earlier.

Laws against compulsory union membership align almost completely with the Red State / Blue State division, with Missouri and Kentucky converting in 2017.  In the Right to Work states union membership declined by a net of 293,000 in 2017.

Overall, the 50 states have a $6 trillion unfunded pension liability, with the blue states such as California, Illinois, and New Jersey generally at the bottom in absolute terms and on a per capita basis. There are some exceptions – Texas stands out – but in general, strong public employee unions help create Democratic majorities and generous pensions.

On the other hand, where Republican majorities have recently eliminated mandatory public employee union membership, workers have abandoned the unions in droves. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels eliminated collective bargaining for government workers when he took office in 2005, and membership plummeted Wisconsin, the first state to negotiate with public employee unions in 1959, eliminated bargaining over pensions, health coverage, safety, hours, sick leave or vacations in 2011; public employee union membership dropped by more than half within a year.

While the decision will be popular in places like South Carolina and Kansas, it is really academic. The people who should be the most interested in the success of the case are those deep blue states where public employee unions are strong, pension agreements are generous, and state finances are fragile – Illinois, California, New York, and New Jersey.