Janus v AFSCME: A Win For Individual Liberty


The U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) recently ruled 5-4 in favor of Mark Janus in the case Janus v. AFSCME. This ruling means that employees within the public sector will no longer be required to pay fees to a union if one is present, which is a win for liberty.

The argument made in this case against public sector unions is one of free speech. Because these unions often support various political causes and are negotiating with the federal government, it was argued that mandatory union dues and agency fees to unions by employees are a form of compelled speech.

The argument against this is that these mandatory agency fees are allocated differently from political action costs and are only used to fund union negotiations and collective bargaining. The problem with this argument is that it misunderstands spending. Basic operating costs always come first. Because employees are being required to pay these agency fees, this frees up extra money from other sources to fund political action, among other things. If these agency fees were removed, some of that money going to political action would need to be reallocated to basic operating costs for the union. Even though agency fees aren’t going directly to political action, they still influence it.

In a legal sense, SCOTUS ruled this as a First Amendment issue, but this case is also a right-to-work issue, which is a form of freedom of association. Individuals already have the right to form contracts with an employer, but outside of a right-to-work setting, they must also form this contract with a third party: the union. Employees (at least in the public sector) now have the right to choose whether or not to associate with the union along with their employer.

This ruling will also strengthen good unions at the expense of bad ones. Unions themselves are not incompatible with freedom. As long as it is voluntary, individual workers have every right to form a collective union with their own interests in mind. This ruling does not infringe on this liberty. The difference is that others can no longer be forced to pay for these unions. Because each individual can join or leave the union as they wish, unions will now have a greater incentive to please the largest possible number of workers, rather than just 51%.

Granted, the free-rider problem is somewhat legitimate. There will no doubt be employees that will gladly receive the benefits of a union without joining and paying union dues. But this position is just consequentialist and not one of principle. If the union is strongly supported, free-riders will only be a minor inconvenience. If the union is at risk of falling apart due to lack of funding, the free-riders that greatly value the union will gladly step in and pay dues in order to save it.

A win for individual liberty means a win for the individual at the expense of the powerful collective group. In some cases, the group can be a corporation or the government. In other cases, like this one, the group can be a union. Those that truly advocate for the rights of the worker will advocate for the rights of the individual.

Unfortunately, some of the more powerful unions like SEIU will attack those in favor of the individual worker by labeling them as “anti-worker extremists.” This only serves to provide another example as to why freedom of association is so important. When an employee pays a mandatory agency fee to a union, they financially support not just collective bargaining for the chapter, but also numerous other actions tied to the organization that can be controversial but not necessarily political. Every organization has a public image as well as at least one desired goal.

It is the right of each individual to fund or boycott any organization or individual that they want to. This should not differ with unions, nor should it be required that an employee quit a job in order to disassociate from any organization that isn’t their employer. If a worker cannot in good conscience finance a union that they disagree with, and therefore quits the job, does this not mean that the union has harmed the worker, rather than fighting for their best interests?

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Nathan A. Kreider is author of the Misconceptions column for Being Libertarian, and has written for the Austrian Economics Center, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Liberalists. He also occasionally publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website, nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]