How Much Less Union Politicking If Supreme Court Bans Forced Fees?

With compulsory fees coming in, teachers union spent $29.8 million on politics in 2016 cycle

The National Education Association contributed $29.8 million to political campaigns and causes during the 2016 election cycle, of which 99 percent went to Democrat or liberal causes, according to the website OpenSecrets.org.

Given the magnitude and one-sidedness of this political activity by public sector employee unions, courts have permitted workers in unionized government workplaces to opt-out of having to financially support union activities that go beyond basic employee representation, meaning political activities. But employees are still required by U.S. Supreme Court rulings to contribute financially to union administration and collective bargaining expenses by paying so-called agency fees, which are about 85 percent of the full membership dues.

In 2015, Illinois state worker Mark Janus challenged this in a case that is now before the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the law still violated his free speech rights. His attorneys contend that in a government workplace, even these basic union activities are inherently political. Oral arguments in the Janus case were held Monday and a ruling is expected in June.

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If the Supreme Court were to rule that Mark Janus and other government employees cannot be compelled to pay agency fees it would amount to giving virtual “right to work” status to government employees nationwide.

There are 28 states that have enacted right-to-work laws that apply to private sector and most public sector employees, according to the National Right To Work Legal Defense Foundation. These laws prohibit compelling employees to pay either union dues or agency fees as a condition of employment.

This leads to the question of how much impact a favorable ruling for Janus in the case would have on union political activity.

"Very hard to say. There is no way to know," said Larry Sand, president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network. "NEA and other government unions will be hurt, but the extent will be determined by how many workers quit or choose not to join them. To be sure they will have to pick their campaigns more carefully. In brief, the gravy train will slow down, not stop."

The NEA, for example, has just under 3 million members who pay union dues and 87,764 agency-fee payers, according to its most recent filings (2017) with the U.S. Department of Labor. The revenue stream this generates gives the union political clout that is felt all across the country.

For example, in 2016 Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal proposed a constitutional amendment allowing the state to take over chronically failing schools. Over a two-month period, the NEA funneled $4.2 million to the campaign against the proposal.

And in 2013, the NEA reported giving $3.6 million to the Michigan Education Association, and a further $2.5 million to other liberal organizations to defeat ballot proposals in this state.

“The National Education Association has long made itself a political player even in right-to-work states by using the forced dues and agency fees they can collect in the 23 other states,” said Derk Wilcox, a legal analyst for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “If Mark Janus wins his case, the NEA won't be able to force teachers in states like New York and California to pay for politicking in states like Michigan or Florida.”

Correction: The U.S. Supreme Court allows states to mandate employees pay agency fees to unions.


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