Labor advocates talk as if public and private unions are peas in a pod. The U.S. Supreme Court suggested Monday they were more like spinach and rhubarb. The court got it right.
In a ruling with broad implications for government spending, five justices decided that Illinois couldn’t force home care workers in that state to pay “agency fees” to the Service Employees International Union.
The idea behind these fees is that non-union workers should help foot the bill for union bargaining that benefits them. In the private sector, that’s a reasonable expectation.
The courts have been emphatic on one point, though: Agency fees must be spent only on collective bargaining. Unions can’t skim them to pay for political lobbying and campaigns to put their allies in public office. Workers who’ve opted out of unions should not be forced to subsidize political action they disagree with.
The Illinois case was narrow. It involved only home care workers, who are typically hired by elderly relatives or friends to cook meals, assist them in getting around, track their meds and otherwise help them keep living in their own homes.
Under Illinois law, the SEIU could bargain for their salaries, but the workers had to negotiate everything else – working conditions, grievance procedures, benefits – with their employers.
The conservative court majority decided it was a stretch for Illinois to wring the fees out of them as if they were actual state employees getting the full range of benefits from the SEIU’s collective bargaining.
The larger issue – which Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion raised but didn’t settle – is whether a government ought to compel any public employee to pay agency fees. This is where the difference between public and private unions becomes crucial.
In government, as opposed to business, spending is public policy. Attempts to redirect government spending – to wages, benefits or anything else – are political by definition. They are a form of lobbying, and they affect the public. In Tacoma, for example, compensation for public employees kept on climbing through the Great Recession and its aftermath even as the city skimped on public safety, libraries and street maintenance.
Some maverick employees may feel they’re compensated well enough already; they may prefer that that public funds not be spent giving them another raise. They might prefer that the library stay open on Friday night, or that more potholes be filled.
They have a right to feel that way. If they have chosen not to join a public union, they should also have the right not to subsidize collective bargaining that violates their convictions about government priorities.
The argument for using state power to compel agency fees in the public sector boils down to: It’s good for unions. That’s true enough, but it’s a thin rationale for compromising a worker’s First Amendment right to political expression.