The Real Issue in the Government Worker Union Battle

NRTW President Mark Mix from the Investor’s Business Daily:

In Wisconsin, union officials — with support from the Obama White House — continue to orchestrate illegal teacher strikes, lead angry mass protests at the state capitol and picket the residences of legislators to safeguard Big Labor’s government-granted monopoly bargaining power over hundreds of thousands of Badger State public employees.

Raucous union rallies and intimidation of elected officials and their families in support of Big Labor’s purported “right” to unchallenged monopoly bargaining control are occurring in other states as well.

Americans learning about organized labor’s battles in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and other states from TV, radio and newspaper reports may understandably be confused about what is at stake, especially if they have no personal experience with unions themselves. From afar, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that public employees’ right to join a union is at stake.

But that is hardly the case. Public employees’ freedom to join and pay dues to labor organizations is already legally protected across the U.S. and is not being challenged anywhere. What reform-minded elected officials are seeking to curtail, and in some cases even abolish, is government union chiefs’ legal power to force public servants into a union as a condition of employment.

Under the current labor laws of nearly half of the states, government union officials have been explicitly authorized to force all public employees in a workplace to pay union dues or be fired, as long as a majority of their fellow employees (among those expressing an opinion) support unionization.

Such forced-unionism laws, which Big Labor is now fighting furiously to keep on the books in the face of increasingly intense public opposition, actually trample on, rather than protect, employees’ freedom to make personal decisions about unionism.

Union monopoly bargaining, which is encouraged in the public sector under the labor laws of more than 30 states, denies employees who don’t want any union the freedom to negotiate directly with their employer.

Forced unionism is not a case of “majority rule.” The fact is, when a majority of workers oppose unionization, the pro-union minority, whether they constitute 49% or 1% of the work force, retain the freedom to join and pay dues to a union. But workers who oppose unionization are, whenever they are in the minority, denied freedom of choice about which private organizations they financially support.

Independent-minded public servants aren’t the only victims of union monopoly bargaining. Taxpayers and people who rely on vital public services also get hurt.

In K-12 public schools, for example, union contracts consistently require that if a school district must lay off teachers — because of reduced enrollments, revenue shortfalls or any other reason — they must lay off those with the least seniority first, even if school managers evaluate them to be far more effective than other teachers with more seniority.

That young and effective teachers are specifically disadvantaged by the union contract does not matter when it comes to the requirement that they pay dues to keep their job.

Unfortunately, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his legislative allies have exempted public-safety departments from their otherwise-robust proposal to curtail public-sector monopoly bargaining power and abolish the public-sector forced-dues system.

Federal courts have upheld coercive labor policies like monopoly bargaining and forced-dues payments on the dubious theory that they might foster labor peace, despite acknowledging that these policies infringe on public employees’ freedom of association. Walker’s proposal significantly moves toward eliminating these infringements.

No U.S. court has ever questioned the prerogative of state governments to prohibit public-sector forced union dues and monopoly bargaining. In a 1974 ruling upholding the constitutionality of North Carolina’s public-sector monopoly-bargaining ban, a U.S. District Court explained:

“All citizens have the right to associate in groups and to advocate their special interests to the government. It is something entirely different to grant any one interest group special status and access to the decision-making process.”

Union officials and others who share their view that public-sector monopoly bargaining and forced union dues are good public policy have every right to continue resisting the efforts of reform-minded Wisconsinites and their counterparts in other states.

But advocates for the forced-unionism status quo have no plausible grounds to claim that they are defending public employees’ “rights.” They should drop the pretense.