The Supreme Court decided several incredibly important things this session, and the last one to be handed down was a major win for free speech. In the case of Janus v. AFSCME, SCOTUS ruled 5-4 that government employees who choose not to join a union cannot have union dues forcibly removed from their paychecks.
Naturally, this case has been derided by the unions and many on the left as an anti-worker, anti-union crusade. But collective bargaining and unionization was never the issue; what becomes problematic is when association with unions and their advocacy becomes compulsory.
Before this Supreme Court ruling, if you were a public employee who did not want to participate in a union—for any reason—your money could be taken from you and given to the unions anyway, if you lived in one of the 22 states with such laws on the books.
If you didn’t like the politicians they supported, or the way the unions badger their members to vote, or the policies they lobbied the government for, too bad. You didn’t have to participate, but you still had to fund it.
The plaintiff in this historic case, Mark Janus, is just such a worker—an ordinary public employee who just didn’t like the way that the unions were bankrupting his state’s government. His case, ably argued by the team at the Liberty Justice Center, was basically a matter of free speech. When an individual donates money to support a candidate or an issue campaign, that donation is an extension of their right to free speech and participation in the political process. Forcibly taking his money, and giving it to an entity that spends it in ways with which he may not agree, is thus a violation of free expression.
The majority of the Supreme Court agreed, overturning a 40-year-old precedent that their predecessors had gotten gravely wrong. As Justice Alito wrote in his majority opinion, “Perhaps because such compulsion so plainly violates the Constitution, most of our free speech cases have involved restrictions on what can be said, rather than laws compelling speech. But measures compelling speech are at least as threatening.”
Now, it’s important to note that while the Janus ruling is a great decision for free speech and a chip away at the once-invincible power of public sector unions, it’s hardly a crippling blow.
The mere existence of public-sector unions is problematic, because by their very nature they are collectively bargaining against federal and state and local governments. Because they’re playing with other people’s money (taken from you via taxes), governments have far less incentive to bargain shrewdly than a CEO does with his own company’s funds. It’s also no secret that, far beyond their role bargaining with employers, unions are among the biggest spenders in politics, and their contributions overwhelmingly flow towards electing Democrats, along with handfuls of moderate Republicans who are beholden to big labor.
In fact, as the size of the government workforce increases, politicians have a far greater incentive to keep giving more and more benefits to these public unions, because they become a paid, built-in political base. It’s a vicious cycle that benefits the union bosses and politicians alike. The workers benefit too, in the short run, but in every state the benefits they have been promised far outstrip the long-term ability to pay them. While the politicians and union bosses enjoy their power and status and money, when the well of public funding runs dry, it will be the ordinary union employees who feel the pain first and hardest.
Hopefully the larger result of the Janus case will be that more public employees like Mark Janus are emboldened to speak out against the catastrophic damage that public-sector unions are doing to their states and localities.