By Dave B.
Several weeks ago, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). This is considered an important case by many, because it is expected that the Court will rule that public-sector unions cannot collect money from non-members.
The (extremely) short version of the sides is that Janus is arguing unions can’t compel non-members to pay union dues and AFSCME is arguing that non-members receive benefits from union activities and should therefore pay for the costs that unions incur to win and provide those benefits.
As some background on my perspective, I was a union-member for nine years. I know and understand both the benefits and the drawbacks of union membership. I think that strong unions in general, and workers’ rights in particular, are as important to a healthy democracy as property rights. The obvious question (in my opinion) is why more people aren’t clamoring to be in unions in the first place? If I am right that unions serve a useful and vital role for society, then it must be the case that they are not adequately demonstrating their value on an individual level.
In my opinion, the AFSCME’s position at best doesn’t make a lot of sense and at worst, is intentionally misleading. Here’s why.
There are basically three broad categories of benefits that unions provide:
For Universal and Industry Benefits, the unions’ costs are can be viewed (to a large extent) as fixed, in the sense that regardless of whether or not non-union members receive the benefit, the unions’ costs to negotiate the benefit don’t have to increase (these benefits are not typically implemented by unions).
For Potentially Member-Exclusive Benefits, unions’ costs DO increase for every member that uses the benefit. However, unions are not legally required to provide these benefits to non-members. If unions become unable to collect dues from non-members, they can (and should) cease to provide these services to non-members.
It’s understandable that unions don’t want to see a decrease in their resources and want to represent as many people as possible. These things improve their negotiating power and allow them to wield political influence on behalf of their members. But compelling payments from non-members is not a sustainable way to go about obtaining or retaining support.
To survive and thrive in the 21st century, unions should focus on proving to current and potential members that there are tangible Member-Exclusive Benefits to being in a union. A concrete example could include expanding continuing education and training opportunities for members and their families.
If people don’t want to be in a union, it’s likely that the union is either not providing sufficient value or is ineffective about communicating that they are. A business that suffered from one of these faults would likely fail. The same will hold true for most of our public institutions going forward. Unions are no exception.