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Will the Supreme Court deal a blow to trade unions?

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WT Economist

Background -- in virtually every state where public employee unions are politically powerful, they have engineered big retroactive increases in the pensions of retired and soon to retire public employees, creating fiscal crises.
And then agreed to "share sacrifice" by agreeing to drastically lower pay and benefits for newly hired members.
A large share of the public workforce hired in the past decade has thus been robbed by the very unions they are required to contribute to.


The Article grossly misstates the legal issues in this case which doesn't involve "trade unions" at all!! This case involves Public
Employee Unions and whether the Government motivated by Political Action by these "public employees" and their Barons can FORCE Union Membership or dues contributions on those seeking Government Employment. That is a Very Different question than stated in the (totally biased) Article. Many public employees including teachers DON'T want to be bossed around by Unions. What Government Interest is served by FORCING Unions and Union "discipline" on them?? This Article reveals how Leftist and Propaganda oriented many Economist Editors have become. Public Employee Political Machines TOTALLY Dominate many "Blue" states and their insatiable and greedy demands for No Fire or Termination for any cause employment as well as pensions, salaries and benefit packages that are BEYOND extravagant are pushing Connecticut, New Jersey, California,New York and Illinois ever closer to a Puerto Rican style Meltdown! Of course the Economist Editors think this is JUST the way things are!

With all due respect, your comment has NOTHING to do with the actual issues before the Supreme Court. This is a Public Employee Union powers and privileges case and has NOTHING to do with the supposed " fact that the corporations have manipulated their workers, who no longer even qualify for the middle class" !! That statement is false in itself and whenever in recent years Union Representation has been put up for a vote: the Union Loses, hands down!!

Tom Meadowcroft in reply to Perthonality

Why should a union be able to claim a monopoly on the supply of labor, skilled and unskilled, to a company? Why can I not enter into an individual contract with the company to sell my services? If the union provides a valuable service and there is benefit to me in collective bargaining, then I can join. But if I am a good worker who has taken the time and trouble to acquire valuable skills, I am almost certainly better off with an individual contract.
This is not 1970s. Most of the companies with large masses of undifferentiated non-skilled labor forces have changed or disappeared. The old rationale of compromising on individual freedoms to maintain "labor peace" is simply not relevant in 2018.

Tom Meadowcroft in reply to

I have worked in unions as a young man, and for most of my professional life, with unions. In practice, unions formed to protect all of the workers spend most of their time and effort defending the drunk and lazy who are a danger to their fellow workers and make their fellow workers work harder to pick up the slack. In most modern manufacturing environments workers are hard to find and hard to train. Supervisors are under great pressure to both adhere to the many regulations on how to treat their workers, and to not lose them. Why? Because most of them have skills that are hard to replace. There are few no-skill jobs left in manufacturing.
Are there certain low-skill jobs, like say maids and fruit pickers, where a union can still do a lot of good? Sure, but it's a small part of the economy these days.
Do employers do anything they possibly can to keep a union out? Yes, including unethical and illegal things. But it's not because they would pay their workers more under a union. That's just a myth. It is because the union would put in place work rules and seniority rules that would make the plant less productive and keep the best people out of the most important jobs. It is because the union would work to stop the employer from firing drunks and malingerers. It is because communication between workers and management would suffer from the antipathy that unions and union negotiations generate. It's because the most highly skilled workers would leave to non-union shops, leaving the dregs behind. It's far harder to run a competitive manufacturer with a union than without one.
Don't give me Dickens. Workers have far more value today, there are many regulations protecting them, and employers simply can't afford to abuse their workers and stay in business. The world has changed, often despite unions rather than because of them. We need new workplace and worker protections in the 21st century, yes. Unions are not a useful 21st century solution to the problems that most workers fact today. Even the workers know that. Don't tell me that the decline of unions is simply because of how nasty employers are. They were a lot more nasty in the early years of the 20th century, and unions blossomed despite that. Unions are in decline because workers know how little they're worth, these days.

Tom Meadowcroft in reply to Perthonality

The compulsion you're looking for is where the government requires the company to only employ workers represented by the union, because 50% of their workers voted to certify that union. The right for individuals to enter into contracts freely is guaranteed outside of those closed shops. Mandatory dues maintains that closed shop even if there is theoretically a right to not join the union. The government is using its power of compulsion to force anti-union employees to pay for services and activities that those employees do not wish to support.
In some sense you can view it as a negative compulsion, because the worker is forbidden to enter an individual contract with the company, but alternatively it is a positive compulsion in the sense that the worker who has agreed to work for a company is positively compelled to pay a tax to the union. Any restriction of individual rights using the power of the state is a form of compulsion.

Tom Meadowcroft in reply to QpGSfnzBAg

Taking away the right of an individual to engage in an individual work contract with an employer is a pretty serious restriction in individual rights. If that restriction was justified (or constitutional) in 1970, when there were many companies with masses of unskilled workers who benefited from collective bargaining, is debatable. In 2018, the workforce is much more differentiated in skill level and jobs. Unions have declined because they don't fit this new workplace well, and the rationale from 1970 holds no water.

Tom Meadowcroft

People should not be forced to join a private group or to pay dues to that group. In a modern corporation, there are many non-supervisory workers whose best interests are served by not joining a union, because many modern jobs require many varied skills, and lumping the skilled and unskilled together in a union generally disadvantages the skilled. Those with skills in demand will generally have better compensation and relations with the company with an individual contract. Others may choose to not join a union because they dislike the leadership of that union. Often unions stress healthcare and retirement, to the expense of the younger members, because the leadership is dominated by older workers. This is why unions have become less relevant as companies that used to employ large undifferentiated masses of unskilled labor have given way to companies with variegated and differentiated workers and jobs. Unions, where they still exist, use the enforced membership of high skill workers to boost the pay to low skill workers at the cost of the pay of the high skill workers. The company suffers when the high skill workers leave for non-union shops. Unions can still be relevant for companies with masses of low skill workers, and governments would do those workers a favor by making it easier for part time workers to organize, and by making it harder for employers to declare workers contractors. But unions are ill suited to modern manufacturing, for instance. Congress and the states should be legislating better legal protections for individual workers, and cracking down on unfair work practices, which are common. But the 21st century unions will never be as big or politically important as the 20th century ones were. They simply aren't that useful for many workers. And that is why closed shops should not be defended. That is why the "labor peace" rationale of the 1970s, a poor excuse even then for a legal precedent, is no longer relevant.
I think the justices need to make clear that all non-supervisory workers are free to designate themselves either a part or not a part of the bargaining unit. Those who do pay the dues and bargain as a group. Those who do not are therefore governed by individual contracts with the company, and are due none of the benefits or costs of union membership. If that decimates unions, it is because workers do not value their unions today, which is entirely understandable. Teachers get little respect as professionals primarily because of their collective behavior as a union. Good teachers will thrive outside of a union. If I were a teacher who had the option, I would certainly leave the union.

A. Andros

I pay taxes to the government because it is inevitable that government find its revenue somewhere. It is not my choice nor should it be. There is simply no logical relationship, though, between paying taxes and paying union dues. The first is the basis of all civilization. The second is no more than loading the dice in labor/management disputes.
"Right-to-work" laws undercut organized labor. Unions are invariably corrupt and, more often than not, ineffective. Many exist for the sole purpose of funneling dues to a mob-influenced leadership.
But, without representation there are few ways an employee can protect himself from an abusive and exploitative management. And, without a compulsory payment of dues, there is little chance of any representation at all.
Capital cannot be allowed to hold all the cards.

A. Andros in reply to jouris

I acknowledge that you are right -- unions in the public sector degrade public service. They should be banned.
But, there is a larger problem and that problem is capital v. labor. I suppose it all depends on one is raised. My father once told me, "You cannot tell the American working man he does not have a right to withhold his labor."
But, "withholding labor" means a strike and THAT means a union!
I concede your point. But, for John Q. Public, a labor union -- for all its manifest failings -- is better than going it alone.
Which side are you on?

L-gharef in reply to A. Andros

Dear A.Andros
It has been a while since you last wrote a comment so maybe you don't know how to access the comments section without the comments button.
All you need to do is type /comments after any url on The Economist website. Please keep posting because I miss your comments. Thanks.


So you want the benefit of the collective bargaining, and also the freedom not to pay the union due? what a double-dealing two-faced Janus!

jouris in reply to A. Andros

I would agree with you in general that "capital cannot be allowed to hold all the cards." But this specific case is not about labor vs capital. It is about labor vs taxpayers.
We have civil service laws for the excellent reason of addressing the spoils system which existed before them. But one feature of civil service laws is that it is extremely difficult to fire government employees, even for massive underperformance. To give them union bargaining power on top of that seems really excessive.
At minimum, if there are to be government employee unions at all, those unions should be forbidden to strike or to engage in lobbying or other political activity. Want to engage in politics with your union? Go work in the private sector.


The argument that the government compels payments all the time is misplaced here. The government's taxing authority is both wide and deep, and this is why the government can compel payments to ITSELF for a wide variety of PUBLIC purposes. This case poses a different scenario -- employees are being forced by the government to pay money to a private entity for that entities private purposes. Moreover, that private entity is dealing exclusively with public sector employers, and therefore their lobbying and negotiating efforts are at least quasi-political in their nature and impact. While I certainly would applaud the federal government passing a law ordering everyone in the U.S. to pay $10 each to LexHumana to support my personal lobbying efforts, I think everyone would rightly object that this is a legal overreach on the part of the government as a compelled deprivation of property that is not for public use, as well as a violation of their right of association and their right of free expression.

jouris in reply to nearmsp

That would seem to be the core issue: do employees who are not members of the union automatically and necessarily get the same pay and benefits as union members? Or are companies free to strike seperate bargains?
In particular, do the unions, in their contracts, insist on non-members getting to same treatment as members? If so, they have no basis for complaining about "free riders."

jouris in reply to A. Andros

I confess that I absorbed much of my attitude towards unions at my father's knee. He was a carpenter, and he belonged to the union his whole working life, because it was required here if you wanted to work as a carpenter. But he held the union in contempt.
That began, I believe, early on. He would go into the hiring hall, looking for work. The Secretary would tell him (loudly) "No, no. Nothing today." Followed, under his breath, by "See me out back in 10 minutes." Because, of course, there was work. Union rules required that job opportunities go first to the more senior members. Those guys weren't interested in working; they wanted to sit around in the hall playing cards. But the secretary was supposed to send them out first. Hence the ruse to send Dad, who did want to work, out to the job.
His position, notwithstanding his contempt for the reality of the union, was that unions absolutely had to be legally allowed and protected. Even though they had metastasized, they still needed to be available.
I hope that answers your question, at least somewhat.


TE: "Compelling payments is quite common, Messrs Volokh and Baude observe, and usually raises no First Amendment worries. “'The government collects and spends tax dollars, doles out grants and subsidies to private organisations that engage in speech, and even requires private parties to pay other private parties for speech-related services—like, for example, legal representation.'”
IMO, there's a big difference between being compelled to pay a tax to support a government program and being compelled by the government to financially support a private organization as a condition of employment.


As a union member for 20 years, I have some points to counter the view of the editorial board that unions are justified and legal and have the right to compel payment by every employee.
Compelling payment by government for taxes is entirely different to giving that power to a single monopoly union.
The argument that employees benefit from negotiation done by union and thus warranting forced payment assumes, every employee wants the union to be the sole monopoly negotiator.
The argument if we make union payment optional then everyone will avoid paying so make it compulsory is not valid. This same argument can be used to force people living in a city to pay for tolls, otherwise only a small group of people who use the toll shoulder the burden. The non users of the toll road benefit from lower congestion in non toll roads.
As a union member myself, let me sleigh another argument provided to support compulsory union membership here. To quote "A Congressional Research Service study shows that workers in states with fair-share fees join unions at a rate nearly triple that of workers in “right to work” states where membership is strictly optional." I either pay $1200 union dues or $995 fair share member dues. For avoiding some $200 fees, I have no say as a Professor in curriculum development committees and many of academia related committees because the union runs these committees and only elected union members can sit in on these committees. I would hope and pray the Supreme court would give me the freedom to negotiate my own working conditions. Being forced to pay membership (what ever name you call it fair share or union member dues) to an organization that goes against all my beliefs in freedom of speech to negotiate my own working conditions and salary based on my performance. As a peak performer, the union is short changing me to benefit non performers and dead wood. The government is encouraging "taking" of my labor of sweat by a non governmental organization.

let freedom ring everywhere

The growth in unions early in the 20th century led to shifting the rewards of our economy to labor at some expense to capital. Increasingly, we valued and rewarded work and not wealth. That changed when in the 80s Reagan started attacking the unions. The rapid expansion in inequality in America since then coincides neatly with the collapse in union membership.

Correlation is not causation, but this is a situation where it makes excellent sense to conclude that eliminating unions wherever possible is part of the corporatist takeover of America. The fact that the corporations have manipulated their workers, who no longer even qualify for the middle class, to take up their cause, is astonishing and disappointing. People are afraid to push for what's in their own best economic interest.