Reexamining the Social Value of Unions

Date: July 27, 2017

Recently we posted on our efforts to block compulsory union measures in various states. As outlined here, we are urging the Supreme Court to hear arguments in Janus v. AFSCME. As in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, we argue that it is time to overturn a 1977 decision that authorized states to enforce legislation requiring public employees to provide financial support to labor unions. Likewise, we are asking the Court to take-up Hill v. SEIU, which challenges an Illinois law that forces private sector workers to affiliate with public employee unions who are, at least according to Illinois law, said to speak on their behalf.

Unquestionably, our supporters are passionate about these issues. In response to a video message on our Janus filing, our Executive Director, Karen Harned, received numerous comments on social media—most praising our efforts to combat compelled unionization schemes. Provocatively, some even went so far as to question whether labor unions serve any socially beneficial value?

But at least one commentator took a more critical tone–apparently in rebuttal to the suggestion labor unions collect money, but do nothing for workers in practice. To be clear, those were comments from our supporters, many of whom hold the view that whatever good unions may have served in the past, they are no longer needed in this day in age. Pushing-back against this idea, our dissenting union-sympathizer suggested that we should thank labor unions for higher wages in the United States.

Yet while it is true that labor unions have long advocated for heightened minimum wage standards, greater overtime pay, higher prevailing wage standards and greater employee benefits, that does not necessarily mean that working class Americans are better off because of labor unions. For one, numerous NFIB Research Foundation studies demonstrate that minimum wage hikes result in the loss of jobs for blue collar workers. Likewise, economists at the University of Washington recently issued a report finding that Seattle’s $15.00 per hour minimum wage has hurt lower class workers—as employers were compelled to cut hours to stay in business. And, as a general proposition, labor unions inevitably call for greater workplace benefits and protections that either directly impose costs or expose businesses to costly lawsuits, which not only stifles economic growth, but hurts the very people whom the unions claim to serve.

So these “pro-labor policies” are in actuality a double-edged sword. And whatever social value one might place in labor unions today, there is good reason to believe that their political agenda has caused greater harm than good for society in recent years. Perhaps there may be a case that unions played some laudable role in the forging of modern America; however, today it seems that they’ve accomplished most of their original goals. We now have a set minimum wage and overtime laws. Eight-hour workdays are standard. And we have thorough regulatory protections in place guaranteeing employee health and safety.

Labor unions should not be allowed to coerce unwilling workers to pay for union representation or services, which dissenting employees do not want (or need). If union sympathizers are correct in saying that unions provide worthwhile services then they should be able to convince workers to pay-in on the merits, and should not have to resort to the threat of legal force to take money from unwilling individuals. Simply put, public employee unions should have to earn their support, just the way NFIB earns its support—i.e., by demonstrating real value.

Moreover, the old “free-loader” argument is misplaced when we’re talking about laws compelling financial support for public employee unions. The rationale behind the Supreme Court’s 1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education was that public employees should be compelled to pay for non-political representation on issues that may benefit them in the workplace; however, there is good reason to question that logic. After a forty-year experiment with compulsory unionization laws, its now clear that everything public employee unions do is inherently political because, for every new benefit or pay increase that they might advocate, they are calling for greater public expenditures that will inevitably strain state and local governmental budgets. This inevitably means higher taxes at the end of the day, which truly is a cause for concern—both for small business and for working class citizens.

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