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Supreme Court Limits Scope of Compulsory Membership Dues for Government Unions

The Supreme Court has ruled that a mother receiving state financial assistance to care for her disabled child does not have to pay union dues. Can you believe that there were four justices who disagreed with that ruling, and the Secretary of Labor has already criticized the decision? Certainly there has to be more to the story.

The issue the Court was asked to decide was the result of increased union power over governmental officials it helps to elect, in this case in Illinois, and an earlier Court case allowing states to require public employees to pay dues or service fees for union representation. (Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, 431 U.S. 209 (1977)). The Court in Abood found that requiring public employees to pay fees to unions that used union money for political purposes did not violate the First Amendment rights of those employees. In that case, the Court recognized that employees were being forced to contribute to an organization with political views they did not share, but allowed the practice because government benefited from collective bargaining.

How the government benefits from collective bargaining has never been clear to me, especially when unions use the dues dollars taken from employees paychecks to contribute to political campaigns. In other words, the more money the government pays its employees, the more money the union gets in dues, and the more money there is to contribute to the campaign of the elected official sitting across the bargaining table from the union. It sounds more like “faith-based” reasoning than rational analysis – unions are so good for government that we will overlook the serious conflicts of interests that arise over political contributions, and people who disagree are apostates. Ridiculous.

Unions in Illinois, emboldened but their political power, convinced the people it helped elect to include non-employees in the definition of people who might be required to pay dues and fees. The idea was that since someone receiving state aid to care for another person was displacing a state worker who would have been hired to do the care, why not treat that person – in this case the mother of the person being cared for – as a state employee. More money for unions (and derivatively elected offcials), so it has to be good.

The Supreme Court, in a 5 to 4 decision, dashed this moneymaking scheme. Harris v. Quinn, U.S., No. 11-681, 6/30/14. In doing so, the majority seriously questioned whether Abood was still good law. Justice Alito, who wrote the majority opinion, called the Abood case an “anomaly,” suggesting that it might be overruled in the future. For that and other reasons, he refused to extend the Abood case to non-employee recipients of state aid.

The other reasons relied upon by the Court were quite convincing. First, the person suing the state was not a public employee. Second, even if the non-employee could have a union bargain for it with the State, the topics of bargaining would be severely limited. Public employees have interests in pensions, health benefits, working hours, etc. Mom’s are pretty much limited to the sole issue of how much money the State is willing to pay them. Alito suggested that mothers do not need unions to do that.

Incredibly, four justices led by Justice Kagan, had absolutely no problem with the scheme. In her view, Abood not only was good law, but it should be extended to non-employee mothers and anyone else the State might argue is “like” a state employee in one way or another.

The Court reached the correct conclusion.   Whether Abood is good law depends, in large part, on whether you have a faith-based view of the goodness and virtue of public employee unions. Apparently, a majority of the current Supreme Court currently thinks that such unions should have a limit on what they can convince government officials to do. Amen.

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