On Monday, the United States Supreme Court will hear the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31. For California taxpayers, the potential impact is huge.
The issue is straightforward: Does public-sector unionism violate the First Amendment rights of workers who do not want to join a union?
The lawsuit was brought by Mark Janus, a resident of Illinois and an employee of the state as a child-support specialist. Because Illinois is not a right-to-work state, he was required to pay agency fees to the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. In short, he was forced to associate with an organization with which he disagreed. A fundamental part of the First Amendment’s right of association is the right not to associate. 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.”
No one will be watching the case more closely than Rebecca Friedrichs, the California teacher who brought a similar right-to-work challenge here in California. Her case also went the United States Supreme Court where it was widely believed she would prevail. Regrettably, the untimely death of Justice Antonin Scalia left the high court deadlocked in a 4-4 tie. With the arrival of Scalia’s replacement, constitutionalist Justice Neil Gorsuch, the days of forced unionism for public employees may be numbered.
The Janus case presents the identical issue as the Friedrichs case and, even though it involves a public employee from Illinois, there is no dispute that a ruling in Mark Janus’s favor would have the same binding effect in California as if Rebecca Friedrichs had prevailed in her action against the California Teachers Association.
If the court rules for the plaintiffs in Janus, state and local government employees in the 22 states that are not right-to-work jurisdictions will no longer be forced to subsidize unions as a condition of their employment. Rather, they will be free to join the organizations of their choice or not to join at all. The same applies to their contributions of money. In short, Janus may very well resurrect employees’ rights to free speech and association, as well as restore political balance by preventing public-employee unions from spending money collected from workers who may be opposed to the union’s political agenda.
And that latter point is key.
In California, public sector unions are without question the dominant political force. With their ability to extract hundreds of millions of dollars annually from their members, they are able to set the political agenda (which usually includes big employee compensation packages) and are able to defeat even modest reforms in education, welfare and criminal justice. Moreover, their prodigious campaign spending allows them to rent politicians who will make sure that the collective bargaining agreements that are executed with the unions favor the unions to the detriment of taxpayers who must pay for all this largess. The business community and taxpayer interests in California enter every political battle at a disadvantage from the start.
It doesn’t take a seer to predict what will happen in California if the plaintiffs in Janus prevail. The experience in other states which have opted for right-to-work status has been dramatic. When union membership is optional, union membership — and forced union dues — decrease. It is very likely that the political strength of California’s public sector unions will diminish if public employees no longer have to pay dues. At that point, interests that favor lower taxation and a positive business climate might finally be able to have their voices heard.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. This column appeared in the Orange County Register on February 25, 2018.