(Note, in my quotations below I have un-bolded some otherwise bolded items. I have redacted some information that would identify my worksite or the state for which I work.)
It’s not only billionaires and cynical anti-unionists who sought the result in the recent decision in Janus v. AFSCME. (This decision, you’ll recall, invalidated compulsory fair-share dues payments for public-sector unions. (See Em Carpenter’s excellent summary). Some people have good-faith reasons to oppose compulsory fair share requirements and to oppose public-sector unions. Public-sector unions have done a poor job acknowledging those reasons.
My public-sector union gets it half right
The day after the Supreme Court’s decision in the Janus case, the parent organization for the public-sector union that represents my bargaining unit sent me an email. The purpose of this email was to encourage its members to remain members and to make sure they have kept their membership up to date. In addition to making arguments about the benefits the union secures for its members and (it claims) for the general public, the email also makes a number of statements about those who supported the Supreme Court decision:
- “…it was disappointing to see powerful special interests take precedence over the best interests of hardworking middle-class Americans.”
- “I want to remind you that [the governor of Sangamon] started this well-funded attack right here in [Sangamon]….[The governor] and his powerful friends have one goal – to eliminate unions. Why? Because our unions are one of the last checks on their control.”
- “Be on the lookout for slick mailers, phone calls, and even home visits from anti-union groups….who will try to get you and your colleagues to quit the union. These groups are funded by ultra-conservative, wealthy benefactors who are only concerned about their bottom line, not our…members…or communities.”
- “Commit to defeating [the governor of Sangamon] on November 6…..From [bad things the governor has done]…to [his or her] campaign against workers’ rights, [the governor] has failed [Sangamon]. [His or her] priorities are clear.”
- “To those who want to attack our rights and rig the economy further against working people, we say this: we’re ready to fight powerfully for the future we all deserve.”
I’m not criticizing the fact that the union sent the email. I’ll assume it wasn’t composed using money from compulsory dues payments taken from non-members. And going forward, that will be a non-issue anyway.
The quoted portions have much truth in what they say. The governor of Sangamon really has energetically pursued a campaign against public-sector unions and has even advocated for anti-union-shop zones (also called right-to-work zones) in the state. I don’t doubt for a moment that I shall receive “slick mailers” from organizations that don’t have my interests or even the interests of the public at heart. I’ve received quite a number of “slick mailers” from the union to “educate” me about my voting choices, so it’s reasonable to expect something from the gander.
My public-sector union gets it half wrong
But there are other reasons someone might oppose compulsory fair share dues payments and public-sector unions. I understand the union thinks those reasons are mistaken, but as far as I can tell, the union’s main argument against them is that they’re non-reasons and that any person who offers those reasons are dupes or worse.
As an example of a good-faith reason to question public-sector unions, take this comment from Slade the Leveller, in the thread for Em’s post about the Janus decision:
I am a resident of IL. Let me state for the record that I am all in favor of unions. However, public employee unions are a different kind of animal. When they go to the bargaining table there is no one on the other side with a vested interest in keeping costs down. Too often, at least in Illiinois, excessive contracts are given to buy “labor peace”, usually in advance of some large event, e.g. Chicago’s failed bid to host the Olympics (thank God it failed!), or the start of the school year. The overly generous pension costs written into these contracts will eventually bankrupt the state of IL.
I offer no opinion on whether the Olympics would have been good for Chicago, and I’m probably more ambivalent about private-sector unions than Slade the Leveler seems to be. But I otherwise sign on to his comment.
I can respect a counterargument that goes,”what you say is true, but in the long-term, that’s an acceptable price to pay for what we and the public gets from public-sector unions.” I can also respect a counterargument that tries to refute the premise on which Slade the Leveller bases his comment (“no one on the other side with a vested interest in keeping costs down”). I have a hard time imagining what that would be because I do accept the premise. But the parent union just ignores the argument altogether in its communications with its members. When it has to address the issue, say when it sends a spokesperson to TV news program, we hear more of the same assertions that “what this is really about is protecting working families.”
As for compulsory fair share fees, I’m no longer sure it’s wise to constitutionalize the argument against them. But even if those fees don’t rise to the level of “should or shouldn’t be constitutional” compulsory they do compel support for political advocacy from people who may not agree with that advocacy. I have yet to see a frank admission from my union that this is at least part of what is going on. Instead, I hear a recap of the free rider argument or the refrain of, “if you give up the dues, will you also give up the benefits?” Those aren’t bad responses, but a dissenter can be forgiven to reading them as shutting down any discussion.
Me and my public-sector union
Call it virtue-signalling or “useful idiocy” (it probably depends which side you’re on), but I rejoined my union in the wake of the Janus decision. I do this because I’d feel guilty getting the benefits without contributing. Before Janus, I could dissent and yet know I was still paying. One thing thing that makes my decision easier is that my union local is smart. For the most part, its leaders refrain from the sloganeering and strident tones its parent union and other public-sector unions have adopted. The few times I’ve raised concerns to the leaders about the union, I got a respectful hearing. They usually disagreed with me, but demonstrated they cared about my opinion. They didn’t ask me, “why do you hate hardworking middle-class families?” which is essentially what my parent union asks in its email.
I still consider myself an opponent of my union. I believe that it is part of a process that is bad for people with less seniority, bad for my institution, and bad for my state. I also have less noble motivations, including my own perceived self-interest and whatever contrarian thrill I get from being a “dissenter.”
I’m still on the fence about public-sector unions in general. If I were a legislator, I’d be strongly tempted to vote against compulsory fair share and even against collective bargaining for public-sector unions. I’m not a committed foe.
That’s for two reasons. The first is that public-sector work has in recent memory offered a friendlier entree to higher paying jobs for minorities and other lesser-advantaged than private-sector work has. To take a strong stand against public-sector unions works in part against those who have benefited from them. I’m inclined to believe that a strong union system limits access to those jobs by providing a disincentive to hire more people. But as a general rule, once someone gets one of those jobs, it’s a good opportunity, and usually (albeit not always) unions enhance the jobholder’s ability to keep that job with dignity.
The second reason is that while I am a public-sector employee, I realize my particular job is much more rewarding and less difficult than the jobs of, say, a public school teacher, a low-level office worker, a janitor, or a child support specialist. My formal education and some exogenous circumstances give me more and better options than those available to the typical worker. Those facts don’t refute what I take to be good arguments against public-sector unions, but they provide some context I can’t ignore when thinking about these issues.
It’s doubtlessly true that Janus could not have happened without the support of well-funded opponents of unions. Some of those opponents almost definitely harbor ill-intent. Others perhaps are not thinking through the implications of what they’re doing and could devote their resources to better, more urgent causes.
At the same time, Janus also happened because the constituency for it goes beyond cynical anti-unionists. There is a growing discontent with public-sector unions. That discontent, while not wholly deserved, is also not wholly disingenuous. Public-sector unions constitute an interest embedded in some states’ political economy, reminiscent of the “special interests” my union’s email warned me about. These unions are not evil for being an “embedded interest,” but they are a claim on public finances and they play a role in limiting the options available to states in straitened circumstances. Simply dismissing these concerns will likely solidify opposition and take Sangamon and similar states down the same road as Mitch Daniels’s Indiana or Scott Walker’s Wisconsin.