The U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 26 heard oral arguments in a groundbreaking case that could spell the biggest setback for public-sector unions in years. In Janus v. AFSCME, the court heard a spirited debate about the widespread practice of requiring government employees to pay union fees as a condition of employment.
The court almost decided this question in 2016 in a case called Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. Unfortunately, that case ended in a 4-4 deadlock when Justice Antonin Scalia unexpectedly passed away just weeks after the case was heard. Janus brings the question of compulsory unionism back to the court, who can settle the matter, once and for all.
But even if the court rules that the First Amendment right of free speech does not tolerate compulsory unionism, which seems likely, the fight will be far from over. Unions will use every weapon in their arsenal to keep workers paying dues.
We’ve seen firsthand in Washington, Oregon and California the awful lengths they will travel to maintain their revenue and political power.
In 2014, the Supreme Court affirmed the First Amendment rights of home healthcare and childcare providers in Harris v. Quinn (2014), by ensuring they had the choice to stop paying union dues. This effectively made these partial-public employees “right-to-work” nationwide. In the wake of Harris, we at the Freedom Foundation immediately got to work educating these caregivers about their rights.
For our trouble, we’ve been the subject of lawsuits, harassment, deceitful and defamatory attacks, and most recently, retaliatory legislation rushed through union-backed legislatures — all to keep workers in the dark about their constitutional rights. Appallingly, these unions regularly spread their abuse around to the very workers they represent. We know, because we’ve been there to help victimized workers.
The Freedom Foundation has so far withstood the unions’ attacks and successfully educated tens of thousands of workers about their rights. This translates into millions of dollars no longer siphoned into union coffers by unwitting and objecting workers.
This year is still young, and already government unions in Washington have shredded its famously strong government transparency laws to make it impossible for caregivers to continue enjoying their Harris rights and for public employees to ever learn about their constitutional rights.
The unions have already handcuffed the states and prevented them from telling workers about their rights. Now, they’ve shut off the public’s right to access public employees lists. These lists allow the Foundation to contact workers and inform them of their options regarding union membership.
Unions ultimately get what they pay for. They bought control of the Washington legislature last year. In exchange, several legislators championed these appalling union bills, much to the detriment of workers’ rights and government transparency.
Speaking of government transparency, these new laws pose major free press and safety concerns. Reporters will no longer be able to investigate public employees who should be held accountable as recipients of taxpayer dollars. Even worse, schools will be unable to track teachers with bad records who jump from school to school harming or harassing children.
As the Seattle Times, hardly a bastion of conservative thought, pointed out, “The entire effort to shield dates of birth comes across as Democrats pandering to the Service Employees International Union, a major Democratic campaign contributor, during a key election year.”
The Times added that legislators “…might not remember who they work for. Their top priority should be serving the public, not the special-interest groups that bankroll their campaigns.”
Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, compared SEIU’s latest tactic to “…burning down the whole building, from our perspective, because there is a paint chip.”
While Washington is an especially shocking example, California passed a similar law last year, and Oregon lawmakers in 2015 rewrote that state’s open records law in direct response to a then-pending Freedom Foundation information request.
Organized labor’s sway over the political process is no weaker in other corners of the country, and after today’s hearing both the unions and the liberal agenda’s funding nationwide will be seriously threatened. What Harris did for Medicaid-funded care providers, Janus could do for all public employees across America.
If our experience after Harris v. Quinn demonstrates anything, watch out. The union reaction will be irrational, outrageous, and underhanded. If they can’t quietly retain their grip on workers’ money by gaming the system and deceiving them, they will lash out with amazing intensity.
We’ve seen it, up close and personal. We’ve endured it.
In terms of workers’ rights, Janus is not the finish line. It’s the starter’s pistol.
But the Freedom Foundation, battle-hardened and undaunted, has good news: if you’re willing to fight and endure, then you can ultimately get through to workers and give them a meaningful choice about their rights.
If worker advocates across the nationwide are willing to fight and endure, unions’ reprehensible tactics ultimately won’t succeed any better on the national stage than they have in the Pacific Northwest.
Let’s cross our fingers the court decides Janus correctly. Then, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work delivering freedom to public employees.
David Dewhirst is chief litigation counsel at the Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit group working to reverse the influence of public-sector unions over government.