Going, going…

Public employee unions, that is. The U.S. Supreme Court, in oral arguments today, indicated that it will once again overturn its own precedent, a 1977 case, and essentially neutralize labor associations that represent government workers.

The case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, No. 14-915, was brought by a handful of California teachers who argue that all union activity is political, including collective bargaining itself, and that as such they should not be compelled to pay dues. Such compulsion, they say, violates their First Amendment rights to free speech.

Today in California, and in another 19 22 states, government workers who refuse to join unions are nonetheless required to pay fees for the costs of negotiating wages and working conditions and otherwise protecting their interests. The 1977 decision, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, affirmed such arrangements. The plaintiffs in that case offered essentially the same arguments as in Friedrichs. But different justices now, and stare decisis be damned.

Also be damned: the ramifications of a ruling favoring today’s plaintiffs. For one, union participation rates have steadily fallen since the 1950s’ peak, and a majority of those who now belong to labor associations work in the public sector. Expect to see those numbers dwindle even further.

union membership rate 1983 to 2014

As union membership has fallen so have real wages for the Rest of Us.

annual change real percapita wages

The editors of The Nation magazine opined on the implications of Friedrichs. They wrote:


The whole of American public sector employment…will become a right-to-work…killing field for unions.

Salon magazine commented:

The gist, though, is relatively straightforward: Because public unions have to negotiate on behalf of all workers — and not just those who are union members — during collective bargaining, it’s long been normal for all workers so affected to be charged a fee. The idea is that because these workers may benefit from the unions efforts, despite not being themselves members, they should also have to make a financial contribution. This is supposed to fix the unions’ free rider problem.

That’s been the norm since a Supreme Court ruling in the late-1970s. But thanks to the Friedrichs case, which was brought by 10 non-union member California teachers and coordinated by the ultra-conservative Center for Individual Rights, that status quo is endangered. Making non-members contribute to collective bargaining, they say, is tantamount to compelling them to endorse the union’s political speech. Contrary to the prevailing understanding, they say, collective bargaining is political.

If the Court sees things their way, it’s likely that they’ll disallow these mandatory contributions from non-members. If that happens, unions say, and the vast majority of outside observers agree, then these already-embattled unions will almost certainly be unable to afford their own perseverance. Suddenly, just like that, a “right-to-work” framework will be imposed on public unions across all 50 states. An inverse of Gov. Scott Walker’s process, in other words, goes national.

One thing is clear. Should the justices reverse course and decide in the plaintiffs’ favor, public sector unions, if not all unions and associations (e.g., legal associations), will lose money. Why pay dues or their equivalent when you don’t have to? With the loss of revenue, unions’ ability to bargain on their members’ behalf will be constrained, to say the least. Indeed, unions’ very existence may be in jeopardy.

Now add Citizens United to the mix. The domination of corporations (capital) will be complete, officially so, should the court rule as expected. The “countervailing force” of labor, as John K. Galbraith used to say, will evaporate to nothingness.