Viewpoints

With Janus, California public employees are free from union shakedowns, finally

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, center, had to broker a deal in 2017 to avert a strike by the Sacramento City Unified School District’s teachers union. Public employee unions, politically powerful in California, are likely to be less so after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this week.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, center, had to broker a deal in 2017 to avert a strike by the Sacramento City Unified School District’s teachers union. Public employee unions, politically powerful in California, are likely to be less so after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this week. rbyer@sacbee.com

Just in time for Independence Day, the U.S. Supreme Court has delivered millions into greater liberty – and a day of reckoning for public-sector union leaders.

The court struck down as unconstitutional the arrangement – heretofore enshrined in law in 22 states – that forced government workers to pay union fees for the privilege of keeping their jobs.

The court’s decision was a victory for Mark Janus, an Illinois state social services employee, who argued that it’s un-American to make him pay dues to essentially a political organization – in his case, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which spends many millions each election cycle to elect (mostly) Democrats at all levels of government.

But the court’s Janus decision is bigger than one brave guy from Illinois. People who work for state and local governments may still join a union, can still bargain collectively, can still financially contribute to a union. The only difference now is that they don’t have to.

The court’s decision will have its greatest impact in just a few states, including New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania – and California, where some 1.3 million government employees are required to pay nearly $1 billion each year to government unions.

That money makes union leaders, like the people who run the California Teachers Association (CTA), the most powerful political players in our state. The CTA deploys that cash to enforce member discipline, and to negotiate the contracts that determine whether workers can be hired or fired, promoted, or laid off. It also uses that money to fund the political campaigns of candidates who, once in office, negotiate the contracts that enhance the power of union leaders.

To understand what this means for government employees, consider that a teacher, now free to opt-out of union participation, stands to save up to $1,000 annually. That’s money they can use to, say, take a family vacation, or put in the bank, or toward paying California’s exorbitant gasoline prices.

Union leaders know that today’s decision threatens the system that has allowed them to control politics and people in California for decades. Projecting that they’ll lose 23,000 members almost immediately, the CTA just slashed its 2018-19 operating budget by $20 million. And because the CTA is a major contributor to its parent union, the National Education Association has announced that it is cutting its budget by $50 million.

Long anticipating a loss in the Janus case, union leaders have been working overtime in Sacramento to shore up their power. Over the past two years, they pushed legislation through the Capitol that requires new government employees to attend mandatory union orientation meetings, and new laws that require unionization of judicial staff who work in our courts and students who work part time at state colleges and universities.

California’s government union leaders won’t give up. They’ll continue to use force where persuasion fails. They’ll use all the money they have to silence critics inside and outside their membership. They’ll talk in terms of class struggle – workers versus owners – but never acknowledge that the real oppressors are the union leaders themselves. The rest of us – government workers and all other Californians – are the oppressed.

Or were.

Forced unionism of the kind that has helped bankrupt our city and state governments was always a violation of trust and decency. Now the Supreme Court has ruled that is also a violation of the First Amendment.

It’s about time.

Will Swaim is president of The California Policy Center. He can be reached at will@calpolicycenter.org.

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