RICHARD STEIER | Editor of the Chief
Posted November 23, 2015
Unions as well as local elected officials have become increasingly vocal on behalf of what in New York is known as the agency-shop fee since the U.S. Supreme Court began its term last month with a California case challenging the concept as part of its docket. They have reason to be outspoken and concerned: a ruling in favor of 10 California Teachers who have the financial backing of a right-wing, anti-labor organization would threaten the long-term viability of public-sector unions.
In places where the agency-shop fee—in other jurisdictions, it is known as “fair-share”—is in effect, those in job titles represented by a public-employee union must pay the equivalent of dues even if they decline to join that union. The logic behind this requirement is that the union is negotiating wages, benefits and working conditions that will help all those under its bargaining certificate.
Over the years, some workers have chosen not to join their unions for political reasons, and they object to having a portion of their fees spent on political-action services that assist candidates whom they don’t support. Despite provisions that require that the unions offer a rebate of the political-action money to those who request it, the current lawsuit argues that this places an undue burden on the workers and wants fair-share scrapped as a violation of their First Amendment rights.
The Supreme Court nearly four decades ago upheld fair-share in a decision involving a Detroit Teachers union, but its more-conservative tinge these days has raised questions about whether a majority of the Justices will honor that precedent. If the high court upheld the California Teachers case, it would have a drastic impact on labor, with other dominoes sure to fall as similar cases were brought elsewhere.
Too often newer members of unions take rights and benefits for granted rather than understanding the painstaking efforts that went into gaining them. With the labor movement in decline over the past 35 years, and with much of the media—including, sad to say, many otherwise liberal organs—covering unions as if they were an anachronistic drain on finances and roadblocks to greater efficiency, there is reason to believe that a significant number of employees, given the chance to avoid paying union dues, would take it.
That, in turn, would weaken the unions, making it difficult to justify their existence to rank and files that would wonder why services were slipping.
For labor, this case cuts across the dividing lines between left-leaning unions and the uniformed ones that are generally more conservative, and could have a ripple effect on private-sector unions. As has become clear with some of its recent decisions, at least some of the Justices are responsive to public sentiment on some of the volatile issues that come before it. And so it’s essential that the unions rally such support as if their future—and that of their members—depended on it.