Steven Greenhouse, a former labor and workplace reporter for the New York Times, is a visiting researcher at the Russell Sage Foundation.
On Monday, during oral arguments in the most important labor case to come before the Supreme Court in years, the court’s conservative majority gave every indication that it will rule that government workers cannot be required to pay fees to the unions that represent them. If it does, the high court will deal a punishing blow to U.S. public-sector unions, whose full consequences may become clear only in the next economic downturn.
Such a ruling in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association might well turn out to be good for Americans as taxpayers, but not so good for Americans as workers.
A decision for the plaintiffs in Friedrichs would tell the nation’s 6.2 million unionized state, city, county and school district employees that they can enjoy the benefits offered by their unions without having to pay for them. By some estimates, between 1 million and 2 million workers could be expected to stop paying union fees, at a cost to public-sector unions of $500 million to $1 billion a year.
Currently, some two dozen states require public employees to pay fees to the unions that bargain for them (including those employees who don’t join), while unions, in turn, are required to represent and bargain for all employees at a unionized workplace (including those who don’t join). How much — or little — public-sector unions lose in fee collections as a result of a loss in Friedrichs will depend on many factors, but most of all on how good a job unions do in showing their value to workers.
Under current law, workers can opt out of paying that portion of dues that goes to political activity, but far more workers may be prompted to reconsider paying dues, including money for political activity, in a post-Friedrichs world. The incentives not to pay will be strong. “They’ll look at co-workers who are free riders and say, ‘You’re getting everything I’m getting without paying,’ ” said Benjamin Sachs, a Harvard labor law professor. “So members will stop paying, and membership will go down, and unions will become less effective overall.”
Police unions might end up with less money to finance employee-assistance programs for traumatized or troubled officers, while teachers unions could have fewer resources for programs to upgrade their members’ skills. At the same time, teachers unions might be forced to devote fewer resources to keeping state legislatures from banning tenure or “last in, first out” layoff protections.
Henry Farber, a Princeton University labor economist, anticipates that weakened government-employee unions would have a harder time winning better health coverage or pensions or pressuring states such as New Jersey and Illinois to pay billions in unfunded pension liabilities. That would certainly hurt government employees, but it could also help to hold down taxes. It’s worth noting that the Bradley Foundation and other conservative foundations underwriting the Friedrichs lawsuit generally support cutting taxes, shrinking government and reducing the power of unions.
Hobbling government-employee unions would harm not just public-sector workers but also private-sector ones. Low-income workers might be hurt most of all. Public-sector unions have long championed a strong safety net, often fighting cuts to Medicaid, food stamps and Social Security. Public-sector unions are among the biggest donors to labor-friendly Democratic candidates, and their lobbyists use this influence to go to bat for workers on issues such as increasing the minimum wage and enacting paid sick-day and family-leave laws.
“If this ruling goes against labor, it potentially means a lot less money available to unions to spend on things like politics,” says Viveca Novak, spokeswoman for the Center for Responsive Politics. “Labor is a big part of Democratic fundraising.” The ruling might further tilt political spending in favor of business, Novak said. According to her group, business donors contributed $1.67 billion during the 2013-2014 cycle, to labor’s $141 million. That could lead to a reordering on the left: If Democratic candidates emerge with less financial support from labor, they might seek to make up the difference from Wall Street and rich donors, potentially shifting the party’s priorities away from middle-class workers and toward those of wealthier Americans. Unions, too, might rethink their approach. They might respond by pressing states to enact laws freeing them from having to provide services to workers who don’t pay union fees. Some states might even let unions charge nonmembers for certain services.
In education, the tradeoffs are particularly thorny. Teachers unions look out for the interests of teachers, and in doing so, their interests often parallel — but also conflict with — the interests of working people who want a good education for their children. Labor’s critics say Friedrichs could improve education by weakening teachers unions that, for instance, vigorously support tenure and oppose charter schools. But undermining teachers unions could also harm public schools, because those unions push to increase education spending and often cooperate with school officials on vital workplace issues, such as school safety. By weakening unions, Friedrichs could ultimately mean lower compensation and larger workloads for teachers. And while that might lower school taxes, it might also mean that fewer talented young people go into teaching, ultimately hurting middle-class and low-income children who need good educations to get ahead.
How such tensions play out may not be clear until the next time an economic downturn puts severe pressure on public spending — and the unions that ordinarily battle to defend such spending. Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California at Santa Barbara, predicts that when the next recession hits, governors and mayors facing budget squeezes could insist on wage freezes and other givebacks that union leaders would have no choice but to accept. Many union members will no doubt grow angry and may then quit paying dues. “This is a time bomb for unions,” Lichtenstein said. And maybe for everyone else who counts on the public sector and the services it provides.
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