Will Public Employee Unions Survive the Janus v. AFSCME Decision?

Will Public Employee Unions Survive the Janus v. AFSCME Decision?
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Story Stream
recent articles

In the highly-followed case of Mark Janus v. AFSCME, the Supreme Court has just issued a momentous ruling. Voting 5-4 in favor of Mark Janus, SCOTUS states that public employee unions like AFSCME cannot force workers who freely choose not to join the union to pay union dues or fees. This is a victory for individual employees’ freedom. It could also prove to be a death blow to public employee unions.

Mark Janus, an employee of the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, has been paying thousands of dollars over the years to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the labor union representing his agencies’ workers.

Janus’ problem was that he never joined the union. No matter. His paychecks still got docked for union dues anyway. The reason: All unionized Illinois public employees are subject to mandatory union dues deductions whether they like it or not.

Mark Janus v. AFSCME: SCOTUS declares mandatory public union dues deductions unconstitutional

Union members believe this decision in favor of Mark Janus is unfair. They say that in the 1977 Supreme Court decision in the Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the Court effectively endorsed mandatory dues checkoffs for public employees. The logic behind that decision was that the Supremes wanted to avoid the so-called “free rider” problem.

More specifically, if an employee did not join the union, that employee would still receive the benefits that the union negotiated without paying dues or contributing to the expenses of the union. The employee would get a free ride.

To avoid this problem, the court declared that the union could impose fees on free rider employees. This fee was a percentage of the total union dues, often assessed at about 85% of the total.

Thus, if union dues were pegged $1,000 per year per employee, a non-union employee would have to pay $850.

Most of that fee would be used to cover the union’s operating costs but a portion would be used to contribute to the campaigns of candidates many union employees may not support. The Supreme Court said that violates the first amendment right to free speech and is therefore unconstitutional.

Is the free rider problem real?

The unions assume that without their collective bargaining representation, an employee would not receive the negotiated benefits. That, however, may not be a valid assumption.

When an individual is offered employment in a unionized government agency, the government makes a monetary salary offer along with a benefits offer. The offer is consistent with the union contract.

The union assumes that the employee would not be able to negotiate as high a salary or benefit package without the union contract. If that’s true and thenew employee does not pay the union at least a minimum fee, the employee gets a free ride.

A new employee may say that’s not true. The new employee may feel that the salary and benefits package could be better if the employee was free to negotiate with the employer. This is especially true if an employee, particularly in a white-collar profession, is considered more skilled than the average worker.

Unions in academia: An example

In academia at public institutions, professors are not all the same. Some professors may be better teachers than others. Some professors may have a stronger research agenda with more publications.

A unionized university places a newly hired professor into an salary category previously on the union contract. The administration would say that’s the best they are legally permitted to offer the new hire. Similarly, the university offers the new employee a benefits package negotiated under the same union contract.

If the employee’s benefit needs differed from those written in the contract, some union-negotiated benefits might not be of interest. Other benefits the employee needs or desires, however, might not be part of the contract. Due to the existence of the union contract, the university administration could not change the benefit package offered to any individual. That new employee might believe they could negotiate a better contract on their own.

The current state of American public and private sector unions

Today in the private sector, unions represent approximately 6.5 percent of U.S. employees. But in the public sector, that number is over 34 percent. Taken together, this totals just under 15 million people, about 11 percent of the total U.S. workforce.

As a result of the Supreme Court’s Mark Janus v. AFSCME decision, public unions may very well not survive. In order to prolong their survival, public employee unions may finally have to change their usual game plan. Instead of pocketing mandatory dues and using them for whatever purposes their leadership desires, unions will now have to convince employees they are better off with the union than without it.

Back in the early 1900’s there was a definite need for unions.  Back then, there were so many willing to work people and so few jobs, resulting in low wages and poor working conditions, so employees were eager to join.  Today things are different.

Many workers believe they would be better off without the union representation.  Now that they don’t have to pay for not joining the union, many likely will not join.

The public employees unions may have a tough time surviving.

Michael Busler, Ph.D. is a public policy analyst and a Professor of Finance at Stockton University where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Finance and Economics. He has written Op-ed columns in major newspapers for more than 35 years.

Show comments Hide Comments

Related Articles