Supreme Court may give workers a choice, but unions still have a critical choice as well

Supreme Court may give workers a choice, but unions still have a critical choice as well
© Getty Images

On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado. The small-business owner inadvertently took on the Goliath of the far-left political machine when he declined to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, citing the constitutional protection of his religious freedom.

While I didn’t necessarily have a dog in this fight, I couldn’t help but feel a camaraderie with Phillips, who was excoriated by the mainstream media and members of our own judicial system throughout the process. He never took issue with the choice that other individuals and businesses made to make wedding cakes for same-sex couples. I would have happily made them a cake, however he simply asked that he not be forced to do so, because such unions are out of alignment with the pillars of his faith.


As president of AFSCME Local 3790 in New Jersey, I empathize with Phillip’s difficult position of being pitted between his personal principles and the coerced nature of the law. Like him, I have been anxiously awaiting a ruling from the Supreme Court. For me, it is the case Janus v. AFSCME, which could release me from being forced to pay a union that does not represent my best interests. Through its political activities, my union acts in ways that is opposite to my own political efforts. Masterpiece focused on the application of freedom of religion and Janus focuses on our First Amendment right to free speech. Nevertheless, the two cases have very little to do with a debate over the merits of any particular union, whether marital or labor, and everything to do with one issue: the freedom to choose.


I hope to see the Supreme Court restore my freedom of speech by ruling in favor of Mark Janus, thus freeing me and approximately five million government workers nationwide from being forced to pay a union as a condition of employment. Yet, this hope should not be misconstrued as a position against government unions in general. Unions have a storied history of empowering working-class individuals around the country to receive the consideration and appreciation they deserve. I am thankful to the early unions, which existed voluntarily and focused their resources on improving the lives of American workers. It’s a shame that not all, but many of these same unions have devolved into our modern-day compulsory political bodies. 

If Janus prevails, AFSCME and the many other government unions across the 22 states that mandate union fees for all public workers will also have the freedom to choose. Will they respect our First Amendment rights and return to the earlier union model of voluntary unionization that won the allegiance of their members through acts of genuine service? Or will they persist with activities that disregard and ultimately undermine the interests of workers they’re charged with representing?

Should the unions face this scenario, I hope to see them make the right choice. If they want to restore the faith of workers, they must make three simple cultural shifts.

One, be accountable. Last week, the New Jersey Senate held hearings over some recently uncovered videos of New Jersey Education Association leaders who appeared to be bragging about their success at protecting the jobs of NJEA teachers who abused students and engaged in other illegal behaviors. Unfortunately, these NJEA leaders were not acting in a vacuum. Unions shouldn’t just be responsive when these situations come to light. They should be the first to call for immediate disciplinary action, investigations, and comprehensive cultural reform within their institution.

Secondly, be transparent. Consider the AFL-CIO, which represents more government workers than any other union. According to Department of Labor statistics, it spends nearly twice as much money on political campaigns and lobbying as it does on servicing its members. On average, less than 2 percent of government union dollars are retained by the local union for basic member services. When money leaves our local, we should know how it’s spent.

And finally, be respectful. The story of Joseph Ocul is a sad example of the lack of respect some unions have for their own members. When his teachers union went on strike in 2016, Ocul chose to cross the picket line and continue to teach his math students, while coaching his impressive girls’ chess club. He felt an obligation to continue providing a safe environment for his students, many of whom come from some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago. His dedication was rewarded by his union in the form of public insults and, ultimately, expulsion. But it’s still happy to take his money. This sort of disregard for their own membership must change.

My own struggles to gain the accountability, transparency and respect of AFSCME-NJ leadership, compounded by the stories above, have made it difficult to envision a scenario in which I would choose to continue giving my money to the AFSCME-NJ union. I would much rather pay dues to a truly local union that would listen to my fellow brothers and sisters where I work. Yet government unions sit in the driver’s seat. Their history enables us to reimagine the current state of unions and pine for the days when American workers were their first priority. I hope that the Supreme Court decision in the Janus case empowers me to exercise my right to choose. I likewise hope these government unions will start making different choices as well.

Michael Thulen is president of AFSCME Local 3790 in New Jersey and contributor to My Pay My Say, an outreach and education campaign by the nonprofit Mackinac Center for Public Policy.