Public employee unions took a deserved beating when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Janus vs. AFSCME ruling, and their pain will eventually trickle down to the Democratic Party. The worst, though, is not over for them. What’s ahead has the potential to alter California’s political landscape.
The 5-4 Court said government workers cannot be forced to pay tribute to unions to keep their jobs. Before Janus, non-union public-sector workers employed in union shops were forced to pay “agency fees” for collective bargaining, or the full union dues less political engagement costs. This arrangement was based on the 1977 Abood ruling that said unions cannot force non-members to fund their political activities.
In practice, Abood changed little. Unions determined the agency fees, which often were nearly identical to full union dues. And despite Abood, agency fees were for decades still applied to political activities. Straying from political orthodoxy, the New York Times reported in the Janus aftermath that the ruling will not only cause anxiety for public-sector unions, it “will also hit hard at a vast network of groups dedicated to advancing liberal policies and candidates.”
Even the very act of negotiating union contracts is itself a political enterprise. Pacific Research Institute Senior Director of Education Studies Lance Izumi says the Janus ruling confirms that collective bargaining “involves public policies and is therefore unavoidably political.”
So, fees that could not legally go toward political purposes have nonetheless been directed toward political purposes.
The unions have enjoyed an easy ride. But now it’s bumpier. Under Janus, they will no longer be piling up agency fees and are expected to hemorrhage members. For instance, as many as 23,000 of the California Teachers Association’s 325,000 members are likely to quit, according to the LA School Report, and the union could trim $20 million from its budget. Stanford political science professor Terry Moe says all “public-sector unions could lose maybe 25 percent of their members, along with the associated dues money.”
Janus, however, isn’t the end. The public-sector unions still have more dates in the courthouse.
In 2015, a class-action suit was filed against Service Employees International Union Local 1000 over its opt-out policy requiring workers to affirmatively choose not to pay the difference between agency fees and full union dues. Plaintiffs’ lawyers are hoping the union, which represents a wide range of state workers totaling about 96,000, will be obliged to return any fees the workers have been overcharged since 2012. According to the Sacramento Bee, a court loss could cost SEIU Local 1000 $100 million.
In a separate action, the Freedom Foundation has filed lawsuits in several states, including California, asking federal courts to order the defendants “to disgorge and refund all fair share service fees or agency fees unlawfully withheld or collected . . . from plaintiffs and the class members.” Defendants include teacher unions, as well as community college associations, school districts, and “school superintendents and chancellors” who process union dues and agency fees deductions.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on “dues skimming.” It’s a practice in which informal caregivers — friends and family members who minister to the sick, disabled, and elderly — are considered by law state employees, allowing unions to skim dues from the Medicaid payments that are intended to assist those in need. And it’s big money. Two California unions collected a combined $96.6 million in dues from informal caregivers in 2016. If the rule is changed, Medicaid beneficiaries will again receive full payments and unions will lose an important source of revenue.
Public-employee unions “have long represented a Mother Lode of political contributions for Democratic candidates in the state,” says Politico. One wonders if D-dominated Sacramento will be more diverse in the future. The Democrats won’t be surrendering their majorities, though they could lose numbers, maybe even their 55-25 supermajority in the Assembly.
Change won’t come overnight. But in the future, it will be more difficult for weakened public-employee unions to block legislation that makes government more transparent, modest public-employee pension reform, state budgets that make more sense that the annual splurges that come out of Sacramento, teacher accountability, genuine education improvements, and ballot measures that promote the general welfare rather than narrow union-Democrat interests.
At worst, Janus might slow the advance of the tried-and-failed Blue State political solutions that are exhausting California.