Unions, Anarchy and the Court

February 27, 2018

The Supreme Court, the one in Washington, heard argument Monday in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The case challenged whether unions, elected by a majority of the workers as their bargaining agent, can charge what are called agency fees, that is, fees for the work they do negotiating for better wages and working conditions. The argument against the unions is that the unions might advocate things that some workers disagree with and, therefore, worker dues are being used in a way that violates their freedom of speech.

The question is how far the Court majority is likely to take us toward anarchy. But first, three short paragraphs of explanation of the terms involved. Unions are selected in a carefully supervised process to be the exclusive bargaining agent for the workers in the shop. The union officers are elected in turn by the membership. The officers are always on those electoral hooks. The union can be decertified if people conclude that the workers no longer support that choice. And the officers can be defeated at the next election.

Unions are exclusive bargaining agents because a plurality of competing unions can’t represent the workers as effectively. Employers could just deal with compliant unions and leave the others out on strike. The responsibility to share the cost of the bargaining unit is necessary because without it, workers can be “free riders,” getting the benefits of their unions’ efforts while refusing to pay for it. That would undermine the unions’ ability to do their work.

From the perspective of the challengers to the part of union dues that supports collective bargaining and handling of grievances, those expenses are as political as lobbying and candidate support. For them, elections don’t matter, just whether union leaders say and act in ways that individual workers dislike. Their argument is that they shouldn’t have to pay.

So now I want to talk about the next case. Obviously many people object to the use of their tax dollars by President Trump to say things that they believe are horrendous, not to mention all the things he does that many taxpayers object to. Can they demand freedom from paying for his press officers and for any portion of his salary which is used for the purpose of making speeches, twits or statements. The logic is similar. The question is how far this union case can take us toward anarchy?

The same argument can be extended to the statements of whichever party opposes their own beliefs. Can taxpayers sue to defund all the press offices, and all the speechwriters, and the congressional TV studio?

There are problems with taxpayer suits. The Supreme Court might bar the door, but the principle is the same. And there are organizations and other parties who could probably make arguments that they are more injured than an ordinary taxpayer.

The same issues come up on the state and local levels too.

We might also raise the same questions about the Court itself. It is taking American law in directions many Americans strongly disagree with. There are costs involved in preparing opinions and publishing them. Do they also violate taxpayers’ First Amendment rights?

The Founders believed that elections solved the speech problem. But the Court views it differently. For the Court, corporations have First Amendment rights to speak for a majority of their boards, with the funds of their consumers. The dissenting board members, shareholders and purchasers, however, have no right to object to the use to which their funds are put.  Unions, by contrast, can’t speak for a majority of their members, despite the fact that they have available to them an electoral process that consumers don’t.

The logic of where the Court appears to be going is not law and order. Instead it is about anarchy. There is no law or government if each of us is a law unto ourselves, including those uses of speech that are necessary to the various jobs that officials and representatives have. There are anarchists in this country, and the gun owning, self-proclaimed “sovereign citizens,” are among them. The Republican Party, however, is anything but. Their party stands for social control. The issue for them is not authority itself but who controls what. Anarchy is anathema to majorities of both major parties and inconsistent with democratic government. But the Court may not understand the connection and the implications of what they are doing.


Proposed Amendments to Overcome Citizens United

July 19, 2016

This is the third in a series on Money in Politics. Last time we discussed the difficulty of getting the Court to overrule Citizens United. Because of that, several constitutional amendments have been proposed as joint resolutions and introduced in Congress in order to undo Citizens United and overrule the idea that a corporation is a legal person. After studying them, however, it became clear they have been so sloppily drafted that no one could tell you what they would do.

None that I’ve seen addresses the associations we join. Political, civil liberties, civil rights, and environmental organizations, and professional associations, all take stands on candidates or political issues. The ACLU went to court years ago to protect its ability to take out an ad over the impeachment of President Nixon.[1]

All except the smallest are incorporated and are protected by the right of association. The First Amendment protects speech, press, assembly and petition. In combination, that’s what our associations do to influence public attitudes about major issues. They incorporate to outlast their founders, use the courts, open bank accounts, organize membership and leadership, seek tax-exempt status and protect members from liability for any mistakes the organizations make.

Those associations matter. The lasting impact that people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King had on the Civil Rights Movement depended on the organizations that did the advance work, and drove home the meaning of what they and other great leaders of the Movement did. That’s true of most successful political movements. Yet the proposed Amendments stop after denying that corporations have constitutional rights and authorizing legislatures to regulate them.

A literalist could read the Amendments as superseding and repealing all previous protections for the organizations we rely on to reform politics, the environment, civil rights and just about everything we care about. Nothing in the proposals protects them.

Sometimes courts hang on to interpretations of older text and neuter newer language, as the Supreme Court has with language in the amendments passed in the aftermath of the Civil War. In the absence of any language about associations, it is impossible to say what the courts would do to the proposals regarding associations.

One proposal denies that it limits the people’s rights, but it is attached to text which limits what the Court defines as part of the people’s First Amendment rights. The meaning of that exception is mysterious, just authorizing courts to figure it out.

Only two amendments mention a free press. They merely say they “shall [not] be construed to alter the freedom of the press.” That’s nice but the exceptions swallow the proposals because much of political campaigns is in or can be done by the press. Whoever controls the distinction controls the result, whether authorities can squelch the press or the press becomes the next form of improper power.

Corporations often set up subsidiaries for otherwise regulated functions, such as associations or media companies, like what Murdock did with Fox. Some media companies are owned by conglomerates. Many associations set up separate organizations for tax purposes. The NAACP set up Thurgood Marshall’s organization around 1940 to separate its legal work from other organizational work. Lawyers fashion ways to live with rules. So what would a press exception do?

Nor should media companies and political associations have a monopoly on political speech. The law should be neutral and should not protect the speech of some while shackling the speech of others.

Whatever you think of the Roberts Court, and I’m no fan, these are serious issues and no proposal addresses them. Instead they provide feel good language covering sloppy and dangerous clauses.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 19, 2016.

[1] Amer. Civil Liberties Union, Inc. v. Jennings, 366 F. Supp. 1041 (D.D.C. 1973).


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