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Paying one's dues [Editorial]

UnionsPublic EmployeesCourts and the JudiciaryFitnessU.S. Supreme Court

Public employees have a right to be represented by a union and to collective bargaining in states like Maryland where the law allows it. And the only way such a system can work — at least on a practical level — is to require all those government workers represented by the union to pay for the costs of the bargaining that makes those benefits possible.

Such an arrangement is commonplace and reasonable, yet it's being challenged in a lawsuit heard Tuesday by the U.S. Supreme Court. The plaintiffs in Harris v. Quinn claim that certain Illinois health care workers who look after the elderly and disabled in their homes should have a fundamental right to refuse to pay any dues if they don't want to join the union.

The most troubling of the arguments against mandatory dues for non-union members is that they somehow violate the First Amendment rights of the workers who disagree with the political positions the unions take. Yet unions can only charge dues for their efforts in bargaining contracts, not for outside political activities like supporting candidates for elected office, as set forth in a 1977 Supreme Court decision.

But the plaintiffs (who have been joined by a host of politically conservative groups) take this one step further. They argue that the bargaining positions themselves may be abhorrent to the workers' point of view. In other words, a conservative who opposes government spending would disagree with a contract that increases the size of that same government — presumably in the form of better wages and benefits for that very same person. In such a circumstance, their dues are being used for a form of political activity, albeit indirectly.

That seems a stretch, at best, given that the alternative — to deny mandatory dues — would lead to either workplace upheaval (constant conflict between unionized workers and freeloading non-union workers who declined to pay dues) or to greatly diminished clout for public employee unions. The latter circumstance would no doubt please many in the Republican Party who would directly benefit from the demise of a group that traditionally supports Democrats.

That political backdrop became clear enough during oral arguments before the court with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation's viewpoint getting its strongest support from Republican appointees. The one exception proved to be the least likely — Justice Antonin Scalia showed himself skeptical of the argument that government workers' rights to petition government were somehow frustrated by having to pay dues. After all, the workers do not sacrifice any such right and can express themselves politically in any forum they see fit.

In theory, the case could be resolved on a more narrow argument — that the contractual workers in question are not government employees at all, even though their salaries are paid by Medicaid, and the state sets their hourly wage, benefits and job descriptions and has authority to fire them. We are skeptical of this argument and believe it should be up to states to declare who is or isn't one of their employees, but at least that's a reasonable position.

We understand the anger of conservatives toward public employee unions. They see teachers, firefighters, police and other government workers lobbying for their self-interest — higher wages, for instance — and they resent the pressure that puts on elected officials to spend more taxpayer dollars. This has caused major confrontations in states like Wisconsin, where leaders have sought to trim pensions and other costs without the burden of union negotiations and thereby not only shrink government but shrink their political opposition, too.

But denying the rights of these workers to join unions — and to a system of mandatory dues to support the cost of this right — is fundamentally wrong. Certainly, it's not a reason to overturn decades of precedent. Nobody is being forced to join a union nor to finance any union's political activities. That's already the law.

Home-care workers receive modest pay and benefits already. At a time when the gap between the haves and have-nots on this planet is growing — and 85 of the world's richest people control as much wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion — it would seem foolish to take away the ability of any group of workers to bargain collectively, let alone people of such modest means.

As for those self-loathing government workers — and here, we're picturing the staunchly anti-government city bureaucrat Ron Swanson from NBC's "Parks and Recreation" — they can always exercise their right to freedom of association and find alternative employment in a non-union shop in the public or private sector. That is bound to offer them greater peace of mind, if not necessarily better wages, benefits or job security.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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