January 22nd, 2014

SCOTUS: public sector unions on trial

This had gone under my radar till now. But it could be a big, big case:

William Messenger of the National Right to Work Committee asked the Supreme Court today to hold that public employee unions are unconstitutional.

“This is—I’m just going to use the word here, it is a radical argument. It would radically restructure the way workplaces across this country are—are run,” Justice Elena Kagan said from the bench. Since 1948, she pointed out, states have had the power to enact “right-to-work” laws that limit union power. Was Messenger arguing that “a right-to-work law is constitutionally compelled?”

Messenger didn’t back off. “In the public sector, yes,” he replied.

The NRTWC wants the Court to rule that “permitting the unions to collect fees for representing non-members—the so-called ‘agency fee’—violates the First Amendment.” This would be a decision that went against the precedent of at least the last 35 years, and Justice Scalia (of all people) seems to be the swing vote.

My reading of this—for what it’s worth, which is not all that much, since I don’t exactly have my finger on the pulse of the Court—is that there is a great reluctance to take such a huge step to reverse precedent, and that it is unlikely to happen. SCOTUSBLOG, one of the better reporters on such things, doesn’t seem to considers it all that likely either, but still a distinct possibility, at least according to the justices’ demeanors:

…[T]he atmospherics of Tuesday’s argument suggested strongly that this case has very large potential. The mood of the Court’s more liberal members was one of obvious trepidation, and that of its more conservative members — except for Justice Scalia — was of apparent eagerness to reach anew the core constitutionality of compulsory union support among public workers.

Ann Althouse reminds us of the way public unions actually work—at least according to Scott Walker, who has had a fair amount of experience fighting them in Wisconsin:

…[George Will wrote that] public sector unions are nothing more than “government organized as a special interest to lobby itself to expand itself.”

Collective bargaining gives the union bosses the keys to the statehouse, city hall, and school. It allows them to effectively sit on both sides of the bargaining table when contracts are negotiated, while no one represents the interests of the taxpayers (whose money is at stake) or the children (whose education hangs in the balance). It is cronyism, plain and simple.

It’s always risky to predict what the Supreme Court will do. But if the current Court takes a step as big as limiting public union power in this way on a national level, I will be surprised—and pleased.

8 Responses to “SCOTUS: public sector unions on trial”

  1. T Says:

    While I am not a union supporter, I do believe that unions in the private sector have the same right to exist as any other corporation. In the public sector, I agree with FDR and Truman, among others, that they hamper govt and give unions seats on both sides of the table and its the taxpayer (i.e., the one who foots the bill) who is never represented (taxation without representation?).

    As for neo’s comment (“. . . there is a great reluctance to take such a huge step to reverse precedent . . . .”) I would say that this is correct if only because large institutions normally tend to shy away from revolutionary actions just as a matter of course. The larger the institution, whether it be SCOTUS, a govt, a governmental department or a corporation, the more likely it is subject to the inertia of the status quo.

  2. Paul in Boston Says:

    The public unions have simply become a money laundering scheme to turn tax dollars into contributions to the Democratic Party. And what could be more undemocratic than being forced to pay money to a private group for the privilege of being employed? My wife works at a state university. Despite being a big lib, she’d dump her union membership and fees in second. All it does is cost money and limit her advancement because of union rules. Let’s hope they lose.

  3. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    “Meticulous attention should be paid to the special relations and obligations of public servants to the public itself and to the Government….

    The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.

    A strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to obstruct the operations of government until their demands are satisfied.

    Such action looking toward the paralysis of government by those who have sworn to support it is unthinkable and intolerable.” President Franklin Roosevelt, 1937

  4. carl in atlanta Says:

    Partisan public sector unions — and the agencies that employ their members — are wrecking the Republic.

  5. Rick Caird Says:

    As I recall, the whole public union thing in the Federal government came about because of an executive order by JFK. It doesn’t seem like that big a step to overrule an EO.

  6. Don Carlos Says:

    “limiting public union power in this way on a national level” is Neo’s modest hope.
    “Limiting”??? Limit to what extent, exactly? Like limiting Dracula to less than each night from sunset to sunrise; we’ll just limit him to 10pm-4am. Now we’ve really accomplished something.

    If it’s wrong, it’s wrong 100%.

  7. Holmes Says:

    Actually Unions in the federal government were codified by the federal services labor management relations act. https://www.flra.gov/webfm_send/527

    Federal union membership is not mandated, even when a union is present. In many states, it is. “Closed shops.”

    I doubt they will overrule it and actually, they shouldn’t. It’s a state policy and to invent some new “right” basically at the federal level would be hypocritical of conservatives even if the outcome is good. States need to address this corruption directly as Walker has done. In fact, it’s a great thing for R’s to run on in purple states. Taking on the fat cat Unions now that people see they really don’t represent anything but their own interests.

  8. J.J. Says:

    Back in the day (1933-1960s) government jobs paid less than private sector jobs because they were more secure. Once hired, people were seldom laid off. That has all been stood on its head. Government employees in general make more than their counterparts in the private sector and have more job security. They also have much better pension plans. No private company can promise a pension with COLAs, but they are quite common in the public sector. COLAs make future pension costs completely unknowable. The COLAs (along with a stagnant economy) are a big reason why so many government pension plans are in trouble. (See Illinois State pensions for an example.)

    If public sector unions are not outlawed, I support Governor Walker’s approach. Non-compulsory union membership and no right to strike – only compulsory arbitration – as the way to go. That tends to take the politics out of it and forces unions to serve their member’s interests. I would also make it illegal for unions to donate dues money to campaigns. They should be able to organize a PAC and take voluntary contributions, just like any other business or organization.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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