Union defenders claim that compulsory dues are necessary to prevent individual employees from obtaining the benefits of union membership without paying for them — called “free riding.”
Who is the free rider?
The union assumes that all teachers support the union’s efforts but just aren’t willing to pay for them. It is true that many teachers do support their union, but it is undeniable that many disagree strongly with the positions the union takes. Coercing the payment of dues from individuals who do not agree with the union’s positions allows the union to “free ride” on the back of hundreds of individuals who have no choice but to pay hundreds of dollars in dues whether they agree with the union or not.
Moreover, many teachers do not think the package of union politics and employee benefits that a teacher accepts as part of union membership is worth it. They might prefer, for example, to accept lower salary and pension benefits in exchange for not having to be associated with the union’s various hardline positions on issues such as tenure, positions that make their schools less exciting places to teach and that inevitably harm their students. It is up to each individual teacher to decide for themselves whether the union really reflects their political and personal interests, not the state.
Many organizations — from homeowners associations to professional organizations — take positions that benefit members and non-members alike. Yet few would claim that the government can compel non-members to pay dues to those organizations. For example, the National Restaurant Association might successfully lobby for a tax break that benefits all restaurants, but it cannot compel all restaurant owners to pay for this lobbying. Or an association of defense contractors might successfully push for increased defense spending and thereby make Washington, DC-area home values increase. But surely homeowners cannot be forced to pay dues to the defense contractors association.
What Price Labor Peace?
Another argument sometimes made in support of compulsory union dues is the government’s interest in promoting labor peace. It is thought that if some employees are dues-paying members of the union and others are not, resentment and disagreement will break out among employees, especially during periods of labor/management disagreement. However, forcing employees to join and support a union with which they fundamentally disagree does not promote labor peace so much as allow one side to enforce its views on everyone. The First Amendment does not permit the government to promote labor peace at the expense of the free speech and association rights of a minority of individuals.
Some argue that employees give up First Amendment rights of free speech and association when they choose to work for an employer. For example, private employee have very few First Amendment rights while on the job (private employers are not limited by the First Amendment). For the same reason, some argue, government employees give up the free speech rights when they are on job. Just as a government employees do not enjoy unlimited speech freedom while acting in the scope of their employment, neither do they enjoy unlimited rights of free association.
One response to this view is that public employee unions have become powerful political entities in their own right, ones that use collective bargaining to promote an agenda of bigger government. The government’s interest in regulating the speech and association rights of its employees extends only to what is necessary to the employment relationship. Its interest does not appropriately extend to forcing its employees to adopt and support political views that have little to do with employment and that, indeed, go to fundamental questions about the role and purpose of the government itself.