Time to Rethink Government Unions


logoIt is time to introduce markets into the states’ public sector labor relations systems by eliminating agency fees and allowing public employees to join competing unions or no union at all. In Harris v. Quinn, decided on June 30, the Supreme Court held that an Illinois law that forced home healthcare workers to join the Service Employees International Union or else pay an agency fee violated their First Amendment rights.  Dicta in the case suggest that some members of the court are now open to asking more general questions about agency fees. State governments should seize the initiative.

Agency fees are charged to nonmembers who work in unionized, public sector settings; they typically equal the union dues. Their rationale is that nonmembers are otherwise free riders who benefit from the union without paying.  That argument assumes that unions benefit all public sector workers, but they do not. Some public employees are forced to contribute to unions that reduce their pay.

In the 1977 precedent of Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the Supreme Court held that dissenting agency fee payers can request a refund of the portion of the agency fee charged for political lobbying, for forcing employees to pay for political advocacy with which they disagree violates their First Amendment rights.

In the recent Harris case the court wrote that Abood failed to anticipate “the practical administrative problems” in determining whether political expenditures are chargeable or nonchargeable.  As well, Abood failed to consider the difficulties in assessing where politics ends and collective bargaining begins. The key issue in Harris was that the employees were in the private and not the public sector, but the court is now questioning the more general role of agency fees.

Public sector university unions are a good example.   Contrary to the Abood court’s opinion, university unionism has hindered rather than helped universities.  Studies of faculty don’t find clear benefits, and some studies find impediments to effectiveness.  The studies don’t consider that public sector faculty unions are increasingly not labor representatives but lobbyists on behalf of what Steve Malanga has called the new new left.

The bellwether faculty union at the City University of New York, the Professional Staff Congress, is a case in point.  By cloaking the large share of its budget that supports new new left causes, the PSC leverages New York’s public sector bargaining law to funnel public money to leftwing causes. The union siphons dues from public employees’ state paychecks; it then siphons the dues money to political candidates. Employees cannot fully opt out because the union hides the donations.

Much of the PSC’s delegate assembly’s time is spent debating political resolutions. The May 2014 delegate assembly meeting, for instance, considered resolutions to end US militarized foreign policy, to support the Mayday 5K national movement for job stability, to address the legacy of slavery in the founding of American colleges, to support the full restitution of pensions for Detroit municipal employees, to stop Coca Cola’s abuse of children and human rights, and to oppose ROTC.  A similar list is discussed at each meeting.

According to the union’s website, in 2014 the assembly passed resolutions opposing climate change, supporting Illinois strikers, supporting taxes on the wealthy to be used for kindergartens, and opposing a New York State Senate bill opposing boycotts of Israel.

The PSC has chosen to affiliate with the Working Families Party. This choice has is not linked to wage-and-benefit negotiation.  The WFP’s goal is to push the Democratic Party to the left.  The PSC’s affiliation with it limits the incentives for mainstream Democrats and Republicans to support the faculty.  As a result, the union has not won a collective bargaining agreement since 2007.  CUNY’s faculty salaries lag those of neighboring nonunion colleges.

According to the New York State Board of Elections,  in 2013 the PSC made $23,250 in political donations, of which $22,500 went to the Working Families Party. However, that understates by millions of dollars the extent to which the union’s resources go to political activity. For instance, in the November 7, 2013 minutes of the union’s executive council meeting President Barbara Bowen thanked Vice President Steve London for “his leadership, strategy, and coalition-building efforts that supported the election of [WFP-backed] Bill de Blasio.”

The PSC’s March 2014 financial statement indicates that of its $17.4 million budget, $9.3 million is paid as dues to umbrella organizations such as the New York State Union of Teachers, the American Federation of Teachers, and the American Association of University Professors, all of which engage in lobbying.

Over the years the PSC has held teach-ins against the war on terrorism, donated $5,000 to support the legal defense of Marxist Lori Berenson, supported convicted terrorist Sami Al-Arian, passed a resolution sympathizing with Hugo Chavez, and supported New York City Labor Against the War.

A lone Brooklyn College geology professor, David Seidemann, brought a law suit for a refund of political monies. The case was settled in 2009. The courts awarded his pro bono attorney $250,000 in legal fees, but the time and cost of further pursuing the case are prohibitive.    In the course of the case, among the activities that the PSC improperly claimed were contract related were a forum on an anti-war resolution, public rallies, picket lines, concerts, and letter-writing campaigns. Many of these were charged under “office supplies.”

Seidemann states that in 2001 the PSC claimed only $15,387 in political expenses out of a total budget of $6,471,530. As the case proceeded and the court made rulings, by 2008 the PSC had raised the amount to $880,301 in political expenses out of a total of $6,243,044, or 14.1%. Seidemann says that the real percentage is probably closer to 20%.

It is time to introduce freedom choice. There is nothing stabilizing to the American economy about compelling individuals to support extremist political causes.  Giving public employees choice will contribute to stability because it will help to reduce the political opportunism.

Mitchell Langbert is associate professor of business at Brooklyn College, a campus of the City University of New York.

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  • George Leef

    Excellent, revealing piece. For many decades, labor unions have gotten away with portraying themselves as friends of “the little guy” — just looking out for their interests. What we see here is the ugly truth that union heads build their political empires (and line their pockets) with money taken from “little guys” who often want nothing to do with them at all

  • Juan Pablo

    Was there a time where unions only concerned themselves with the working conditions of their workers IN THEIR PLACE OF EMPLOYMENT?

    I can understand in general terms the idea of solidarity, but why do unions like teachers unions (collectively) need to take an institutional position on issues of war/peace, the wages of fast food workers, whether (and to what extent) abortion is legal, how high the income tax rate should be, what’s happening to the climate etc?

    I must be really naive because I don’t get it.

  • http://www.stubbornthings.org NAHALKIDES

    This is a good piece, but it doesn’t go quite far enough: public sector unions should be banned completely as the menace to the interests of taxpayers that they are. Note that there is no “right of association” interest here, because the only legitimate interest is that of the taxpayers who pay public sector workers. Allowing them to unionize not only funds left-wing causes, it increases their political power, and they should have none. Those receiving salaries at taxpayer expense should not have the opportunity to vote on how many public sector workers there are and how much they’re paid. By rights, public sector workers should be disfranchised, and it we can’t do that, let’s at least ban them from unionizing.

    • Adolphus

      Spoken by one who shows a complete ignorance of the beneficial purposes that unions actually represent and denies their value to the public as well. You go overboard in showing your prejudices, friend.

      • http://www.stubbornthings.org NAHALKIDES

        Government unions serve to drive up public-sector wages above the minimum required to fill the positions, which is what is in the taxpayer’s interest. Therefore, unions are bad for taxpayers. They also tend to move the country Left because they support the Party of the State, which in America is the Democrats.

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