This week is National Employee Freedom Week, a nationwide effort of 81 groups in 45 states to raise awareness among public union employees that they can opt out of membership in their unions. Groups also provide members with the necessary help and resources to do so.
Victor Joecks, executive vice president at the Nevada Policy Research Institute and an organizer of NEFW, told me why this week should be celebrated:
In almost every area of life, Americans understand that they have the right to join and leave associations. Every day some Americans go to a new church, switch political parties, or cancel magazine subscriptions without even considering the possibility that they wouldn’t be able to leave an organization they were unhappy with. We understand these rights in almost every area of life except for one—union membership.
The issue at stake is not that employees cannot leave a public sector union—it is that they cannot choose to stop funding the union. In forced unionization states, employees have the option to become agency fee payers, exempting them from paying for union activities that are directly political. By doing so, they lose many benefits of union representation, such as liability insurance. However, they are still forced to pay most of the dues.
Many people who support forced-unionization bring up the “free rider” problem. They say that people who leave the union will still receive benefits, such as bargaining for increased pay, fewer hours worked, and more generous retirement benefits, that they do not pay for. While this is a valid concern, the desire to opt out of public sector unions is not a case of a free rider problem. No sane person would force someone to get on a bus, then complain that they are “gaming the system” by resisting paying the fare. If union membership were voluntary the free rider problem may apply, but it is not.
Many union members see how collective bargaining is bankrupting state and local governments and harming educational achievement. They understand that by burdening their neighbors, children, and grandchildren with high levels of debt, collective bargaining works against their interests. States are $5.1 trillion in debt, of which $4.4 trillion is due to unfunded pension funds. To cover the total unfunded liabilities of state governments, each person in the United States would have to pay over $14,000.
Unions also oppose common-sense educational reforms such as charter schools and voucher programs. Implementing programs that inject choice into education is necessary right now. The latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests show no change in high school students’ reading or math skill levels from four years before. Stagnation is not acceptable when less than 40 percent of students are proficient in reading and only 26 percent are proficient in math.
With unions supporting so many harmful policies, is it any wonder that over 4 million Americans would leave public sector unions if they could?
While leaving a union is possible, it is not easy. Unions have a strong interest in keeping as many full-dues paying members as they can. Personal testimonies at this week’s Heritage Foundation event, Free at Last: How and Why Union Members Leave Their Unions, confirm that unions work to frustrate those who want to leave at every turn.
Voluntary association should not be a partisan issue. The vast majority of Americans (over 80 percent) agree that union employees should be able to opt out of having their hard-earned dues used for political spending.
These issues all stem from the flawed 1977 Supreme Court case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. In this case, collective bargaining was upheld, along with forced dues collection, even if members disagreed with the political ideology of the union leadership.
A group of California school teachers is seeking to have the Supreme Court reevaluate and overturn the Abood decision on First Amendment grounds. It is common knowledge that the First Amendment protects the rights of free speech and free association, yet forced unionization continues. Even worse, a substantial portion of the dues are used to promote political ends that many members disagree with on practical or moral grounds. The case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, is working its way through the courts and offers hope that the injustice created by taking away choice is done away with for good.
Returning to Joecks’s example, imagine if magazine companies did what public sector unions do. They could force people to sign up for a subscription and refuse to allow them to stop paying for the magazine—even if they do not want it. Attorney General Eric Holder would be filing a lawsuit against them and the authorities would be involved.
Thankfully there are other solutions to public union representation. Private professional organizations, such as the Association for American Educators, offer perks such as $2 million in liability insurance and legal protection. These benefits are offered at a lower price than union protections, since AAE is focused on serving its members rather than protecting its special treatment in Washington, D.C. and state capitals.
Unions are supposed to provide a service. In any other part of the service industry, if customers began leaving, the company would need to rework its value proposition. Unions refuse to do so. Instead they do all they can to hold their “customers,” and American taxpayers, captive.
About the Author: Jared Meyer is a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute. He is a graduate of St. John’s University where he received a B.S. in finance and a minor in the philosophy of law. Jared’s research interests include microeconomic theory and the motivations for, along with the economic effects of, governmental regulations. He was previously a research assistant for the political philosopher Douglas Rasmussen. Jared also publishes and presents on the need for a moral foundation of free markets. This article originally appeared in Public Sector Inc. and appears here with permission.