Provision in Biden’s “Build Back Better” would help government unions in California
The fallout continues to build from the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2018 ruling that government unions cannot require their employees to pay unions anything – membership dues or fees – as a condition of employment.
These dues and fees have long been a key to the balance of political power in California. Government union leaders almost always steer that cash to Democrats – politicians allied with unions and eager to back union causes and to fund ballot measures with a progressive agenda
But the Supreme Court agreed with the argument that mandatory dues violate the First Amendment rights of union members by using their money to advocate for positions in collective bargaining or political causes with which they don’t agree.
The ruling in Janus v. AFSCME alarmed government union leaders and their Democratic allies in California and the 21 other states without right-to-work laws, where compulsory dues-paying had been the norm even for workers who declined to become union members.
The day the Janus ruling was issued, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 866, which created paperwork obstacles to workers withdrawing permission for union deductions – most notably the requirement that the request to end due payments must be made to the union, not the employer. Illustrating the extent of government union clout in Sacramento, SB 866 also made it illegal for public officials to say anything that might persuade a government worker to decline union membership.
But as California Policy Center reported earlier this year, such maneuvering hasn’t worked. At least 306,000 workers – about one-fifth of the Golden State’s public workforce – have stopped paying fees and dues since the Janus decision. This has led to a power struggle in SEIU 1000, the state’s largest government union, between the old guard and newly assertive members who want less politics and better member services.
Now comes President Joe Biden, with a new move to try to prop up struggling government unions. Included in the Biden administration’s $1.75 trillion “Build Back Better” omnibus spending measure passed Nov. 19 by the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives is a provision that would allow union members to deduct up to $250 of their annual dues from their gross income before paying taxes. Per The Wall Street Journal, the provision would sunset in 2025. The estimated cost to taxpayers: $1.4 billion. As The Journal’s editorial board pointed out, this tax credit would directly benefit the Democratic lawmakers who get the overwhelming percentage of union campaign contributions.
Nevertheless, Build Back Better has never been as popular among Senate Democrats as House Democrats, who face increasing pressure to toe the progressive line or risk facing primary threats from the left. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and moderate Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have never liked the scope of new spending backed by Biden and most congressional Democrats. There don’t appear to be enough votes to pass the bill as is.
But that doesn’t mean the idea of the $250 tax credit for union dues will go away. It could easily resurface as a provision in other legislation or as a standalone measure.
Yet if it became law, would that be enough of an incentive to reverse the slide of government unions in California?
Maybe not. According to the California Teachers Association’s 2020-21 membership dues schedule, a teacher must pay $937 a year to the CTA and its parent, the National Education Association. Local union chapters typically add $200 or more a year in dues of their own.
So how many teachers in a state as expensive as California would see $250 in annual tax credits as enough to pay three levels of unions more than $1,100 a year?
The Janus ruling seems likely to diminish government union power in the Golden State for years to come.
Chris Reed is a contributing editor to California Policy Center, and an editorial writer and columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune. You can follow him on Twitter @calwhine.