Janus could destroy some public-sector unions, and that's a good thing

Janus could destroy some public-sector unions, and that's a good thing
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On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a 41-year-old decision permitting governments to force public-sector workers to pay fees to unions as a condition of employment. In its 5–4 decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the court determined that mandates requiring workers to pay unions with whom they disagree violate those workers’ First Amendment rights.

Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “the First Amendment does not permit the government to compel a person to pay for another party’s speech just because the government thinks that the speech furthers the interests of the person who does not want to pay.”

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The ruling undeniably creates significant problems for public-sector unions. According to a report by Fox News, unions say about five million workers will be impacted by the decision in 24 states and Washington, DC. Although it’s impossible to predict how many government employees will choose to stop making payments to unions or will leave unions entirely to escape having to pay dues, public-sector unions have for decades fought ferociously against the notion government workers have a First Amendment right to choose not to pay unions, and they have done so in large part because they know millions of dollars in agency fees could soon leave unions’ coffers.

 

Critics of these arrangements have argued that public-sector unions’ political power has been closely tied to these forced payments, and that by eliminating the requirement to pay, public-sector unions could struggle mightily to maintain their influence in the coming years. If workers who don’t agree with their unions’ political views don’t have to pay them, why would they? Even more horrifying for public-sector unions is that many current union members might soon choose to leave unions, a decision that would now effectively provide them with a guaranteed pay raise.

Supporters of policies requiring public employees to pay agency fees to unions say that the ruling against these arrangements will cause significant harm to some unions, and that the harm caused is unfair for those organizations—a position Justice Alito powerfully and succinctly dismissed in his opinion for the majority:

We recognize that the loss of payments from nonmembers may cause unions to experience unpleasant transition costs in the short term, and may require unions to make adjustments in order to attract and retain members,” Alito wrote. “But we must weigh these disadvantages against the considerable windfall that unions have received under Abood for the past 41 years. It is hard to estimate how many billions of dollars have been taken from nonmembers and transferred to public-sector unions in violation of the First Amendment. Those unconstitutional exactions cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely.

For those of us who support individual liberty, the demise of public-sector unions and their illegal payment schemes is most welcome for several important reasons, including the three below.

First, as Justice Alito explained in his opinion, no person should be compelled under state or federal law to pay money to groups that stand in opposition to his or her political beliefs. Not only is this in total opposition to basic constitutional principles, it is deeply immoral and should be roundly rejected by every society in which people truly desire to be free. 

Second, the presence of public-sector unions often leads to cronyism and the creation of sweetheart deals provided to groups willing to sell their loyalty at the ballot box in exchange for special treatment. The power of public-sector unions in places such Illinois show how much damage these arrangements can cause. The funding shortfall for Illinois’ five pension retirement systems for government workers is now greater than $137 billion, and the state has accumulated more than $52 billion in unfunded retiree health care costs. Despite these and many other financial problems in Illinois, very few reforms have managed to be implemented, and the biggest obstacle continues to be the tremendous political power wielded by public-sector unions.

Third, public-sector unions have been some of the biggest opponents of important pro-liberty reforms, especially in education. The development of education savings account programs — which allow parents to send their children to the school of their choice, including public, private, and charter schools and homeschools — have faced the most opposition from public-sector teachers unions and their allies in state houses across the country. Even in red states, where one might assume education reforms would be more popular, teachers unions have been able to exert their considerable influence to stop parents from having the ability to move their children out of failing traditional public schools.

Public-sector unions have unjustly benefited from unconstitutional policies and cronyism for generations, but thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus, that will soon change. Advocates of the free market and individual liberty should remember this day for many decades to come as a major victory for freedom.

Justin Haskins is executive editor and a research fellow at The Heartland Institute, an Illinois-based nonprofit that advocates for limited government, and a research fellow at The Henry Dearborn Institute for Liberty, a free-market association of scholars.