Public sector unions could lose millions of dollars because of the Supreme Court's ruling in Janus v. AFSCME last month, since they'll no longer be able to compel non-members to pay dues. But a state lawmaker in New York has proposed what he calls a "workaround" to let unions continue cashing in even if they lose members.
The solution? Redirecting funds that could be used to give workers raises into the unions' own accounts.
Rep. Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan) plans to introduce legislation that would allow unions to include the costs of collective bargaining in their government contracts, the New York Post reports. That would tap taxpayers, rather than union members, to fund unions' operations.
"I don't think there's a lot of logic to the Janus decision to start with, but New York state—in our Constitution and law—has long recognized that public employees have the right to collectively bargain," Gottfried tells the paper.
Of course, nothing in the Janus ruling prohibits public sector employees from bargaining collectively. The ruling merely says that unions cannot compel dues payment from non-members covered by collective bargaining agreements. Those mandatory dues payments—also known as "agency fees"—violate workers' First Amendment rights, the Supreme Court ruled.
"Public employees are forced to subsidize a union, even if they choose not to join and strongly object to the positions the union takes in collective bargaining and related activities," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority opinion. "We conclude that this arrangement violates the free speech rights of nonmembers by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern."
Post-Janus, union will have to convince their members that it is worth paying monthly dues to support the unions' activities.
Gottfried's proposal seems to put the interests of the union itself ahead of the interest of its members. His bill would redirect funds that could otherwise go to workers' paychecks to cover the unions' operating expenses. In a memo to colleagues in the state General Assembly, Gottfried says the bill would let public employers agree to "direct reimbursement" of the unions' bargaining costs as part of contract negotiations.
"The collectively bargained amount would then proportionally reduce the workers' salary," Gottfried wrote.
In effect, workers would instead get the leftovers after the union got paid first.
But it's unlikely that any worker would actually experience a pay cut under Gottfried's scheme, says Ken Girardin, policy analyst at the Empire Center, an Albany-based think tank.
Public sector unions have a monopoly on representation, so including the cost of contract negotiation in the contracts they sign means taxpayers would end up paying more without any reasonable hope that governments could choose a less expensive option.
"A percentage of future raises would be designated as collective bargaining expenses and permanently embedded in base salaries on a recurring, permanent basis," Girardin writes.
In other words, taxpayers will pick up the tab for unions' political activities.
To comply with the Janus decision, state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli announced last week that agency fees will no longer be withheld from workers' paychecks starting on July 11. According to data from the Empire Center, there are about 200,000 public sector workers in New York who are not union members. They will save about $110 million annually by not having to pay the fees.
That could be just the start. An analysis by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, a union-backed think tank, estimated that 726,000 workers, including some 136,000 members in New York, would choose to stop paying dues if the Janus decision went against the unions.
"Janus put public sector unions at a crossroads. They could embrace a voluntary system or they could double-down on coercion," says Patrick Semmens, vice president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. The New York proposal, he tells Reason, would "allow union officials to sell out workers to line their own pockets."
Elsewhere, unions are looking for other ways to keep the revenue flowing in the post-Janus world. In Hawaii, one unnamed worker tells Hawaii Public Radio that when he tried to opt out of mandatory dues payments he was told he would have to wait until it was time to renew his annual membership in the state's largest public sector union.
"There's not an 11-month waiting period for the First Amendment to kick in," says Semmens.
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