In his July 1 column Avery Horton Jr. does a remarkable job distorting the intent and impact of the Supreme Court’s recent Janus decision, which prevents public sector unions from collecting fees for union representation.
Horton rationalizes the decision's real impact by arguing that union members aren’t hurt by Janus, and that only the corrupt “political behemoth” union organizations are affected. But in the end, it is the economic well-being of individuals that will suffer the most from a weakened labor movement.
The sleight-of-hand used by Horton is the argument that this is all about the individual rights of workers, who shouldn’t be compelled to support political ideas they oppose. But union members already enjoyed numerous mechanisms to protect those rights before Janus.
First, they can make their voices heard by participating in the democratic processes their organizations use to make decisions on policy and candidate endorsements. And if they are opposed to any involvement in politics, the Supreme Court’s 1988 Beck decision gives them the right to deduct the portion of dues used for that activity. Finally, the courts have established the rights of legitimate religious objectors to make a contribution to a non-religious charity in lieu of union dues.
Horton conveniently avoids the “free rider” question posed by Janus. While public employees may now refuse to pay union dues or fees, they are still represented under the terms of the labor contract. That’s right — you don’t pay union dues or fees, but you get the same pay increases negotiated by the union. And if you are fired, the union has a duty to represent you under the grievance resolution process set out in the labor agreement.
You are a “free rider” — you get something for nothing, while your fellow workers pay to support the infrastructure to negotiate and maintain a labor agreement.
Think about this scenario in a different context. Say I refuse to pay my taxes but insist that I have the right to send my children to local schools and to receive police and fire protection. Then suppose this is a new “right” (as in Janus) that has been upheld by the courts. Is this fair to the community? Is it an “individual right” that should be protected?
Or consider it from a manager’s point of view. You are a supervisor in a unionized setting where some workers decide not to pay union dues or fees (perhaps goaded on by a right-wing think tank or political committee), leaving their fellow employees to pay the freight. Do you think that might cause a problem in the workplace? Could it create bad feelings between people who need to work together?
By ignoring these factors Horton reveals that Janus isn’t about protecting the rights of union members at all. It’s about reducing the power of unions as institutions. This is really the far-right’s long game strategy to weaken America’s labor movement. They’ve been pursuing it since the National Right to Work Committee was founded in 1955, and it gained momentum with the growth of the Koch brothers' network of foundations and political action committees.
There is ample historical evidence that unions raise wages for workers and reduce inequality in our national economy. By weakening those institutions Janus rewards the most powerful American individuals and corporations, whose wealth has grown rapidly since the mid-1970s as the real wages of American workers has stagnated or declined. That growth in inequality almost exactly matches the curve of the decline in union membership.
Even if you don’t belong to a union, or if you sometimes disagree with the positions taken by public employee unions, you should be skeptical of the libertarian rhetoric inherent in Horton’s rationalizations. The argument that Janus is about individual worker liberties is the real charade here. It will hurt individual workers, families and our community.
Marcus Widenor is an associate professor emeritus at the University of Oregon's Labor Education and Research Center.