Early in World War II, Nazi Germany pounded Great Britain from the air for months in what was known as “The Battle of Britain.” It was a certainty that the bombing campaign was the precursor to a German invasion. When Germany failed to make England succumb, the bombing campaign ceased. At that point, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
This week’s Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. AFSCME is one of the most important decisions in decades. Simply put, the high court ruled that public employees cannot be forced to pay so-called “agency fees” to a union as a condition of employment, because compelled support for the union violates the employees’ right of freedom of speech under the First Amendment.
The ruling, in effect, renders California a right-to-work state for public-sector employees. Because public-sector unions, including the California Teachers Association, Service Employees International Union and dozens of others have used compelled dues to dominate California’s political environment with vast amounts of campaign money, the decision will, over time, have a big impact in the state.
But we need to stress “over time” because the changes won’t be immediate. So, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, this may not be the beginning of the end for unfair political advantage, but it is the end of the beginning.
The impact will be two-fold. First, it is well known that substantial numbers of public employees bristle at having to support a union that advances political positions or supports political candidates they do not like. This form of compelled speech has been properly identified as a violation of the First Amendment since the nation’s founding. As Thomas Jefferson noted, “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.”
Second, as in all things political, there’s the issue of money. Public-sector labor in California is the 800 pound gorilla. Government employee unions influence all levels of government to their advantage, first by donating heavily to get their favored politicians elected, then by negotiating contracts with those same politicians to win salaries and benefits that taxpayers in the private sector can only dream of.
The union treasuries are filled by extracting money from paychecks. For union members, the money withheld is called union dues. For employees who choose not to belong to the union, a similar amount is withheld from their paychecks, but it’s called a “fair share” or “agency fee.” For decades, this was justified as necessary to prevent “free riders” from having the benefit of collective bargaining without paying for it.
But in the Janus case, an employee of the state of Illinois disputed that it was a benefit to impose higher and higher costs on taxpayers. When politicians sit across the table from union leaders during contract negotiations, taxpayers aren’t at the table, they’re on the menu.
Thanks to the steady stream of money from compelled dues and agency fees, union leaders have had vast financial resources at their disposal. This made them kingmakers in political battles, electing politicians who are indebted to them for their careers and reliant on them for re-election.
In other states where public-sector unions have lost their ability to forcibly extract “fair share” fees from objecting employees, the impact on union coffers has been dramatic. For example, Michigan’s largest unions have seen a net loss in membership of 85,000 people — 11 percent — and a decline in political spending of $26 million — or 57 percent.
A measure of the importance of Janus is the decibel level of wailing from the political left. Progressive Democrats — a redundancy in California — are apoplectic. Typical of the hyperventilating is this from Kevin De Leon: “Powerful corporations and the ultra-wealthy have been working overtime to divide workers from their co-workers, muffle their voices, and wrestle away their power. Today, the Supreme Court shamelessly sided with corporate billionaires in a ruling that threatens hardworking families.”
Of course, KDL has it exactly wrong. The Janus decision will empower workers to make their own decisions when it comes to public-sector union membership. If progressives were really worried about threats to hardworking families, they’d be happy that families now have the option to keep more of their own money.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.