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A new challenge for public workers

June 10, 2018

No one likes free riders who are happy to join in when others are buying the drinks but never buy a round themselves. We know that if we want the fire department available when our homes catch fire, we have to pay our fair share of the cost of keeping the fire department running. Ideally, everyone would pay voluntarily but, because we know that some people will be tempted to free ride, we have legal rules requiring every neighbor to pay their fair share.

For the past 40 years, “fair share” rules were applied to public workers and their unions. The courts decided in 1977 that if public sector workers didn’t want to be members of the union, they could stop paying the part of union dues that covered the costs of broader union activities, but they should at least pay “fair share” fees covering the costs of negotiating contracts and representing them in disputes with employers.

That is about to change. The Supreme Court recently heard a case called “Janus” (Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31, known as Janus v. AFSCME). Thanks to the addition of Donald Trump’s new appointee, the Supreme Court is almost sure to decide later this year that public workers can choose to enjoy the benefits of representation without paying for the expenses involving in securing these benefits.

Indeed, it will become illegal for employers and workers’ unions to negotiate a requirement that all workers pay their fair share. The court will be enshrining a constitutional right to free ride at the expense of the ability of public sector unions to represent public sector workers.

People like the Koch brothers see this as a golden opportunity to destroy public-sector unions. A national network of Koch-funded organizations, such as the “State Policy Network,” will mount a campaign to convince workers to free ride as soon as Janus is decided. Their pitch is simple: “Give yourself a present; stop paying dues; you won’t lose anything; everything will stay the same.” But everything won’t stay the same. Resources to bring to bear the expertise for negotiating contracts and supporting workers when employers violate their contracts will shrink. The very existence of public sector unions may be threatened.

For the Koch brothers, the goal is to leave each individual worker to face their employer by themselves, without unions to help them protect their rights. Recent events in other states offer a preview of what could happen in New Mexico. Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker led the way seven years ago with a new law allowing workers in that state to free ride. Economist Gordon Lafer has analyzed the results of this attack on public-sector unions. Public union membership in the state declined and, by increasing employee payments for health insurance and pensions, the state imposed an effective 12 percent pay cut on public-sector workers. Those savings were then transferred to the richest people in Wisconsin, with the top 1 percent getting a tax cut of $2,500 per year.

In the end, whether the Koch brothers’ network succeeds in undermining public sector unions will depend on the workers themselves. If vigorous public debate results in fully informed public employees, workers are likely to choose to pay their fair share to support the unions that have delivered the wage increases, benefits, job safety and retirement plans that they enjoy. The principle of paying your fair share applies to contributing to the costs of representation at work, just as it applies to contributing to the local fire department. Free riding doesn’t make sense in the long run, certainly not when the quality of your job is at stake.

Peter Evans is retired from public-sector education and is the co-coordinator of the Albuquerque chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network.