The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to deliver a crippling blow to public sector unions and their artificially inflated presence in the political arena. The anticipated ruling in Friedrichs v. CTA argued last week before the High Court would end forced unionism: the law of the land in Pennsylvania and 22 other states that require dues-level payments to the unions from non-union employees. A decision is expected in June.
The unions stand to lose millions in lobbying and political dollars, and membership is sure to drastically decline once the payments are no longer required. What’s more, the ruling could have down-the-line implications beyond the immediate impact on influence peddling by the unions. House Majority Whip Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) predicts that a favorable ruling will help loosen the stranglehold the unions have on needed reforms currently languishing in the General Assembly.
"We’re looking into possibilities now," Cutler said. "But no doubt it will give momentum for paycheck protection (ending government covering the cost of deducting the dues straight from paychecks) and other changes."
In the case before the Supreme Court, ten California teachers argued that the required payments force them into collective political speech, violating their First Amendment rights. The comments from the bench during oral arguments in the case indicate a majority of justices agree with the teachers, according to Lance Izumi, J.D. Senior Director of Education Studies, Pacific Research Institute.
"It all centers around where you draw the line between where pure negotiations for wages and benefits end and where policy begins," Izumi said. "If it’s policy, it violates the First Amendment by infringing on their right to free association. The comments from a majority of justices indicate they believe you can’t separate the two. It’s all policy so it’s all political."
During arguments last week, Justice Atonin Scalia said that the problem is that everything that is collectively bargained with the government is within the political sphere. "Should the government pay higher wages or lesser wages? Should it promote teachers on the basis of seniority, or on the basis of – all of these questions are necessarily political questions." Scalia said.
And collective bargaining, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said, is inherently political when the government is the employer. "Many critical points are matters of public concern," he said, mentioning issues like tenure, merit pay, promotions and classroom size.
A majority ruling that the forced payments violate the First Amendment would end the practice not just for teachers’ unions in California, legal experts say, but all public unions in the 23 states that require the payments.
"Doesn’t matter if they have contracts in place and it doesn’t matter where," said Karen R. Harned, Executive Director of the National Federation of Independent Business’ Small Business Legal Center. "They will have to end the practice immediately if the court rules it unconstitutional."
The distinction between wage and benefit representation and policy lobbying and influence is unclear at best. The union formula used to calculate expenses for issues of wages and benefits goes far beyond and reaches into political causes where they often build coalitions with left-wing groups in search of ever-bigger government.
This inordinate power of bureaucrat unions is the principal reason why PMA President David N. Taylor says we are stuck with a depression-era liquor system and its incomprehensible regulations, a runaway public pension system that is bleeding the General Fund and ruining the commonwealth’s credit rating, and a reactionary political culture that refuses to respond to the economic realities of taxpayers.
"The ruling could help restore balance to the political process and make unions more accountable to their members because those members would no longer be captive," Taylor said.
Current law is derived from two earlier Supreme Court cases: Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, a 1977 case, and an expansion of the rule in a 1988 case Communications Workers of America v. Beck. In the latter case, the court ruled that all people working in union shops, public or private, have the right to opt out of paying for union political expenditures. However, it reaffirmed a public union’s right to collect payments from non-union members.
But as a majority of Supreme Court justices indicated last week, all union activity is designed to influence policy; and as Representative Cutler said, all the money used to influence that policy comes from the same pot.
In all, 7.2 million of the country’s 20.4 million public-sector workers were members of unions in 2013, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Another 690,000 government employees were represented by unions but weren’t union members.
In Pennsylvania in 2013, forced dues were taken from at least 20,173 public-sector workers.
• AFSCME Leadership Council 13: 14,015 payers.
• Pennsylvania State Education Association (NEA): 5,603 payers.
• AFSCME Pennsylvania Hospital & Health Care Employees: 555 payers.
Overall, Pennsylvania’s five largest government unions – PSEA, AFSCME Council 13, SEIU, UFCW 1776, and the PFT – received more than $163 million in revenue in 2013, according to figures compiled by the Commonwealth Foundation. The same unions spent more than $5.5 million of that dues money on direct lobbying and political activity.
If the court rules as predicted, the unfair takings that artificially amplify the power of the bureaucrat unions will end, forcing unions to earn members the same way businesses earn customers – one at a time, day by day.