Column: Case is key to public workers’ free speech
As thoughts turn to celebrating the incoming year, a Supreme Court case, Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, could give government workers a reason to be merry in 2018, by freeing them from union captivity and delivering a big win for personal liberty.
More than 40 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled on a similar case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, in which the court determined teachers lacked the right to fully opt out of union membership while employed in a public school system where teachers are unionized.
Objecting public servants may “opt out” of paying the portion of their involuntary membership fee, but because money is fungible, union bosses still use individuals’ money to speak for what the union boss wants.
In 2016, Mark Janus, an Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services child support specialist, sued the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, arguing the union was infringing upon his rights by extracting membership dues from his paycheck without his consent.
Because he was being forced to contribute his hard-earned money to the union as a condition of his employment, Janus says he is being deprived of his rights to free speech and association, and he’s right. For a government employee wanting to leave the union entirely — and not just do the forced-unionism Hokey Pokey, which only allows workers to pull their left or right foot out — quitting an otherwise enjoyable and rewarding job is the only option.
All union activity is effectively political, and the current forced-unionism status quo violates workers’ rights by forcing them to engage in political activity against their will.
Even routine union contract negotiations have a direct effect on government actions, becoming a form of political activity. For example, when a union lobbies lawmakers to approve more public pension benefits or higher or more frequent pay raises, the government’s labor costs go up, using resources that could be put to better use on other budget items. Thus, when more money goes toward public-sector unions, less money is available for other government services, such as road repair or public libraries.
Similarly, when a union endorses a political candidate or fights a bill being proposed by a state’s legislature, it claims to speak on behalf of everyone in the union, including those who don’t agree but are forced to remain members. Government employees are being compelled to pay money out of their own paychecks against their will so that other people can speak on their behalf without their permission.
There may be valid reasons some workers would want to join a union, but there are also reasons to avoid joining. Many public servants are being denied their right to self-determination, figuratively locking them in a room and forcing words into their mouth.
The justices’ decision to consider Janus’ case is an opportunity to open that door, freeing public servants to have the right to choose not to join a union and to make decisions based on what’s best for them and not merely what’s best for the union bosses.
Jesse Hathaway is a research fellow with The Heartland Institute.