The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that challenged the ability of unions to require everyone in a workplace to pay dues. Here is what is at stake in this case: the very existence of public unions.
When the majority of workers in a workplace vote to form a union, and they all get a union contract with all its attendant benefits, everyone in the workplace is required to pay union dues. It is, in essence, the price of admission to working under a union contract. If people could freely choose not to pay union dues, while still enjoying the benefits of being in the union, they surely would. And if people did not pay union dues, unions would, inevitably, cease to be able to function.
That is exactly the purpose of the omnipresent push to change the law so that everyone in a union workplace is not required to pay dues. It is easy to see the superficial appeal of this idea: freedom, and whatnot. The argument beguiles by asking, “Should people be required to pay for something they don’t want?” It is an argument that elides both the nature of unions, and the true goal of the argument itself.
Unions draw their power from unity. A workplace union is able to get more for all of its members than they could alone precisely because it represents everyone, and companies are forced to reckon with the needs of their entire (necessary) work force in a way that they would not be forced to reckon with the needs of one (easily dispensable) employee. Unions are the soul of democracy: they exist if most workers want them. They benefit everyone. And everyone shares the costs. To suggest that only people who want to pay dues in a union workplace be required to pay dues is a bit like suggesting that you should be able to attend potluck dinners without bringing any food: it gives you the unfair advantage of getting something without contributing anything, and after a while, you can be sure that there won’t be any more potluck dinners at all.
The case that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, centers on teachers in California who claim that being required to pay dues to the union (despite not wanting to be in it) violates their right to free speech, on the grounds that “some collective bargaining with a government employer amounts to lobbying and that forcing them to pay for those activities violates their First Amendment rights.” This case is not about the First Amendment. This case is about the right wing pursuing a method for destroying the working class’s ability to unionize. The case covers only public employee unions—but that is a big enough prize for the right wing. Scott Walker’s terrifying successful campaign to destroy Wisconsin’s public worker unions has proven that the utter decimation of organized labor is not only theoretically, but actually, possible.
As a result of very specific policies, America’s economic inequality has been growing since the Reagan era. Union membership has been on the decline for the entire time. Since 2009, 90% of the income gains in this country have gone to the top 10% of earners. Studies show that union members earn more money than non-union members, making it unsurprising that workers in “right to work” states—where workers in union shops are not required to pay union dues, the policy that the Supreme Court could extend to all public unions—earn lower wages than workers in other states.
Much of America’s inequality problem can only be addressed through government action and regulation. One of the few ways that regular workers can meaningfully improve their own economic situation and power is through unionizing. Now, the right wing is trying to make it more or less impossible for public sector workers to do that. Next, they will come for private sector unions. This is a very simple battle between the majority of people, who stand to benefit from organized labor, and the minority of free market ideologues and business interests who stand to benefit by continuing to drive down America’s wages and pocket the difference for themselves.
We either say we love America’s vast and growing gulf between the rich and the poor, or we acknowledge that we need unions. More unions. Many more unions. If the Supreme Court chops the legs out from under organized labor under the pretense of “free speech”—the same rationale they used to give corporations unlimited financial leeway to influence elections—it will have very real and severe consequences. It’s enough to make you wonder if everyone in this game is playing fair.