This Labor Day, Unions Are Gunning for Workers' Free Speech Rights

Today, Americans enjoy a day off of work to celebrate Labor Day, a holiday commemorating the organized labor movement. Unions did indeed secure important rights for American workers, including the idea of a weekend including Saturday and Sunday. Yet organized labor is horrifically corrupt today. Workers who refuse to join a union because they disagree with the union's political stance were forced to pay fees to the union, anyway — until the Supreme Court defended workers' free speech last year. Now, unions and their political allies are fighting to prevent workers from leaving the unions and from opting out of paying fees.

A new report from the Commonwealth Foundation revealed that government unions and their political allies are pushing legislation across the country that cements unions' power to compel workers to support their political agendas. Many workers have resorted to filing lawsuits in order to escape the unions' grasp.

"This report warns that a Supreme Court decision is in danger of being undermined by politically savvy actors at the state level," Charles Mitchell, president and CEO for the Commonwealth Foundation, explained in a statement Friday. "Advocates for workers cannot rest on their laurels and expect public employees’ newly-restored rights to be respected. States must pass laws that enforce and protect the Janus ruling."

In Janus v. AFSCME (2018), the U.S. Supreme Court defended the free speech of Mark Janus, an Illinois child support staffer who refused to join the local union, AFSCME Council 31. While he did not have to pay dues, the union still forced him to pay "agency fees" — a large portion of union dues — on the theory that he benefits from the union's bargaining. Janus objected, saying he did not want to support the union financially. He argued that "this is a gross violation of my First Amendment Rights to free speech and freedom of association."

AFSCME defended the agency fees, insisting that they were not political. Yet AFSCME Council 31 spent $268,855 for "Convention expense" in 2016, taking this from the funds gathered by "non-political" agency fees. The AFSCME convention in 2016 featured a lengthy "AFSCME FOR HILLARY" program, complete with a Hillary Clinton speech. On the very first day of the convention, the union's president led attendees in booing Donald Trump. On the third day, the convention adjourned early so members could participate in a "TRUMP HOTEL DIRECT ACTION" protest march. The convention even chartered buses for the protest.

It gets worse, however. Mandatory "agency fees" actually forced one woman to effectively contribute money used to attack her husband's political campaign! Deborah Nearman, a public employee in Oregon, refused to join SEIU 503 because she opposes the union's political positions — Nearman is a pro-life Catholic and the SEIU 503 funds pro-choice candidates.

In 2016, the SEIU forced her to pay $1,258.91. She fought to opt out, and received a refund of $273.68. That year, her husband, Mike Nearman, ran for State Representative. He won the election, but the union spent $53,260 against him. The union also ran political ads against him that his wife described as "disgusting." (Last month, Mike Nearman joined the Freedom Foundation as its Oregon state director.)

As an aside, SEIU 503 recently endorsed the radical Green New Deal, which aims to change the entire economy and would cost at least $250,000 per household in the first five years.

As unions are no longer forcing non-members to pay "agency fees," organized labor has lost a great deal of money. Many union members who reluctantly joined the union since they would have to pay fees anyway are also choosing to leave, now that they have the option of refusing to pay any money at all. According to the Freedom Foundation, unions in California, Oregon, and Washington State lost approximately 25,000 members in the first six months after Janus, which will bleed them about $20 million per year. By September 2019, the Freedom Foundation had helped more than 55,000 government employees leave their unions and stop paying dues.

Unions responded with a legislative blitz, and more than 100 pro-union bills were introduced this year, attempting to maintain the unions' stranglehold over workers. According to the Commonwealth Foundation, 21 states earned a "D" or "F" grade for worker freedom. These states either: provide non-member fee workarounds; expand union privileges like taxpayer-funded union work; provide employees' private information to unions to facilitate organizing; unionize new classes of workers without their knowledge or consent; or require automatic dues collection using a public resource.

A map of the U.S. states graded for worker freedom by the Commonwealth Foundation.

In response, workers have filed more than 70 Janus-related lawsuits, seeking to escape unions and recoup mandatory agency fees. Nearly half of these have been filed in California and Pennsylvania.

"More workers are realizing that their union’s leadership is acting for themselves rather than for workers," Mitchell, the Commonwealth Foundation president, added. "Our friends and neighbors in public service shouldn’t have to sue to have the same rights as you and I. This report highlights the need for lawmakers across the country to rise above union executives’ resources and influence and prioritize what’s best for workers."

Last week, the National Right to Work Foundation filed a class-action lawsuit against Gov. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) for enforcing restrictions created by AFSCME Council 11, attempting to keep state employees from stopping union dues payments. The union only allows workers to opt out of paying during a brief "escape period" once every three years at the end of the union's bargaining contract. AFSCME 11 is preventing tens of thousands of state workers from escaping the forced endorsement of the union's political speech.

"Over a year ago the US Supreme Court ruled that public employees’ financial support of union activities must be completely voluntary, but the state of Ohio continues to enforce illegal union policies that violate the clear standards laid out in the Janus decision," Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Foundation, said in a statement. "Governor DeWine and Attorney General Yost should move quickly to stop this widespread violation of the First Amendment rights of Ohio public sector workers and cease collecting union dues from any worker who has not affirmatively consented to pay dues."

Most of the growing unions are public-sector unions, representing government employees against local, state, and national governments. Both Janus and Nearman were government employees in such unions. Even the notoriously liberal President Franklin Delano Roosevelt opposed the idea of public-sector unions, because they involve bargaining against the American people.

Unions played an important role in American history, but their current activism is corrupt. Not only do the major unions overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party, but they also are fighting tooth and nail to prevent workers from expressing their First Amendment rights to opt out of supporting their political positions.

Whatever their political views, Americans should oppose the corruption of these unions. Workers should not be compelled to donate funds to political causes they oppose.

Follow Tyler O'Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.