Public employee unions brace for loss of members and money

One of the most pressing cases before the Supreme Court in 2018 involves the very survival as we know it of public employee unions like Education Minnesota. Center of the American Experiment has joined with the National Federation of Small Business and the Cato Institute in filing a legal brief in support of reversing the status quo and freeing teachers and other public employees from being forced to pay union dues to keep their jobs.

Education Minnesota and other public employee unions are already laying plans to help offset what they expect to be a devastating loss in membership and revenue. American Experiment’s Kim Crockett has this heads up in the Eden Prairie News on what savvy teachers and government workers need to be on the lookout  for.

The state’s most powerful public employee union — Education Minnesota — has begun laying the groundwork to prevent the potential loss of thousands of members and millions of dollars, depending on the outcome of a landmark First Amendment case before the U.S. Supreme Court this term.

The pivotal case involves a public employee from Illinois named Mark Janus, who’s asked the high court to restore his First Amendment rights by reversing a 1977 decision (Abood v. Board of Education) that endorsed “fair share” union fees for all public employees.

Fair share fees are charged to public employees who choose not to join the union. Even though unions demanded and won the legal right to exclusively represent, for example, every teacher at a school, unions argue that it is unfair for an employee to benefit from a contract without paying the costs of bargaining.

The problem with the Supreme Court’s 1977 ruling is that it ignored the fact that all collective bargaining is very political in nature. The outcome of contract talks and lobbying efforts affect political matters like taxation and spending, which is considered a form of speech.

It is a bedrock principle of constitutional law that Americans cannot be forced to speak or associate, yet we force public employees to support unions — and to accept representation. For these reasons, the court is expected to rule in favor of Mark Janus.

Under current law, if public employees do not want to support the union, they cannot keep their job. Why do teachers have to choose between their constitutional rights and a career in teaching? If Janus wins, public employees in forced-dues states like Minnesota will have the right to keep their jobs if they do not pay anything to the union.

How have the unions responded to the Janus threat? Education Minnesota asked its members to sign a “Membership Renewal” contract and raised dues — roughly $900 a year — by $14 to pay for the campaign.

The contract automatically renews membership and the payment of union dues. So if Janus wins, teachers who sign the card will still have to opt out during a very narrow window, instead of just doing it one time.

The fine print is hard to read, but it is the key “contractual” language that the union is anxious to renew before the Janus case is decided in June of 2018:

“I agree to submit dues to Education Minnesota … This authorization shall remain in effect and shall be automatically renewed from year to year, irrespective of my membership in the union, unless I revoke it by submitting written notice to both my employer and the local union during the seven-day period that begins on Sept. 24 and ends on Sept. 30.”

Unions argue that there is strength in numbers, but in forced-dues states like Minnesota, where union dues are guaranteed, union executives do not have to worry about whether their members are pleased with the union’s politics, priorities or performance. They can ignore teachers who strongly object to union activities, or who think that the union is too busy playing politics to deliver on salaries and benefits.

What if Education Minnesota, instead of trying to force teachers to pay dues or trap them with sneaky contracts, treated teachers as valued customers instead of captives? What if government unions worked hard to find out what employees wanted? Surely the outcome would be better service for teachers.

The only way this will happen is if the union must earn dues and members. Unions might be less powerful but teachers will be empowered.

Twenty-eight states already recognize these rights for public employees; unions there are learning how to attract and retain members by being customer-focused. If Mark Janus wins his case, Education Minnesota and other government unions will get that same opportunity. It will be a “win-win” for public employees and government unions.

Kim Crockett is vice president and senior policy fellow at Center of the American Experiment, a public policy organization based in Golden Valley.