The Court Decision That Made Unions Powerful

The Court Decision That Made Unions Powerful
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Next Tuesday the Supreme Court will have an opportunity to correct a wrong -- a mistake that has enabled states and public-employee unions to trample on the First Amendment rights of millions of Americans. In Harris v. Quinn, the Supreme Court will decide whether the state of Illinois went too far in converting private employees into "public employees" in order to conscript them into unions.

For years -- since the Court's infamous 1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Bd. of Education -- local and state governments have been allowed to make paying union dues a requirement of holding a government job. But recently, several states have pushed the envelope by counting independent contractors paid through Medicaid as public employees, too. The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) joined with the Cato Institute not only in opposing Illinois's attempt to conscript private employees into its unionization scheme, but also in asking the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision in Abood.

The Abood Court saw no problem with forcing public-school teachers to pay union dues (or the equivalent in "fees"), so long as any objectors were given a refund for the portion of their dues that went toward political activities. These refunds address the concern that teachers will be forced to support objectionable speech in the political arena -- but as a general proposition, governments can still require public employees to pay union dues regardless of whether they object to union representation. This raises First Amendment concerns, as the Court recognized. But the Abood court held that the state’s strong interest in promoting "labor peace" was greater than these First Amendment concerns. As a result, union leaders have gone on to successfully lobby states to require public workers to pay union dues as a condition of employment.

For the unions this means more money and more political clout. But, as demonstrated in the recent fiscal crises that have severely plagued state and local governments throughout the country, organized public-sector unions have proven costly. Ultimately, taxpayers and business owners must pay the tab as union leaders lobby for greater and greater government spending -- so that government can hire more union members.

Things get incestuous pretty quickly when government employees, who are supposedly public servants, begin exerting their influence on the political process to institutionalize their agenda. To some extent this will always be a concern with public-employee unions. But in authorizing state and local governments to compel union membership, the Supreme Court was only fanning the flames. It should not be surprising that, three decades later, many local governments are on the verge of bankruptcy, having over-committed taxpayer dollars to fund pension programs and other public-employee perks. And now, as state and local leaders contemplate reforms to address these budgetary problems, they face stiff opposition from public-employee unions whose membership has been inflated by compelled-unionization schemes.

Setting aside these policy concerns, however, it is time for the Supreme Court to take a stand for our First Amendment rights. Compelled unionization violates the fundamental right of each individual to choose whether to associate with a group, and to choose whether to lend that group financial support.

The Abood decision sacrificed constitutional protections for the benefit of politically powerful interest groups. Compelled unionization schemes force public employees to hand-over their hard-earned money to feed the unions' appetite. They should end.

Karen Harned is executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business Small Business Legal Center.

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