Janus v. AFSCME: The myth of ‘free riders’

Mailee Smith

Senior Director of Labor Policy and Staff Attorney

Mailee Smith
February 27, 2018

Janus v. AFSCME: The myth of ‘free riders’

Government unions claim providing workers with a choice whether to pay fees to a union will result in "free riders" - but that claim is disingenuous.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Janus v. AFSCME on Feb. 26, which stands as one of the most important labor cases in recent history.

For more than 40 years, government workers have been forced to make an unfair decision: Pay a government union or lose one’s job. But if the court sides with Illinois state worker Mark Janus, government workers across the nation will finally have a real choice in who and what their hard-earned money supports.

Unfortunately, Janus’ opponents are disparaging current members by claiming they will walk out and become “free riders” – workers who supposedly reap the benefits of union representation without paying for it – if the Supreme Court restores workers’ rights.

Any “free rider” claims are completely disingenuous. In Illinois, government-worker unions fought for the special privilege to represent all employees in the first place, and have fought efforts to reform that practice as well.

Unions fought for the right to represent all workers – not just members

Unions such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees lobbied for the monopoly to represent all government workers in Illinois – even workers who are not union members.

Government workers such as Janus did not choose for government unions to have this monopoly, and they shouldn’t now be held responsible for it. This is a beast of the unions’ own creation.

Employer-employee relations for government workers in Illinois are controlled by two statutes: the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act (for educational workers), and the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act (for other government workers).

Both hold that a union representing government workers in a bargaining unit is the “exclusive representative,” meaning that union – and no one else – can represent all workers in the unit. That applies to members or nonmembers.

This was a choice made by the unions themselves. Some of the state’s biggest unions – including AFSCME, the Illinois Education Association, or IEA, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, or IFT, and the AFL-CIO – registered their support for the legislation creating the laws.

In fact, their involvement in developing Illinois’ laws goes even further than that. The IEA and IFT drafted the bill that would become the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act, and the AFL-CIO was the primary author of the bill that became the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act.

Now unions are using the privileges enshrined in those laws as a red herring argument against worker freedom. But workers who are not union members shouldn’t be held responsible for government unions’ power grab.

Unions fight against reforms that would allow nonmembers to represent themselves

Not only did government-worker unions create the laws that grant them exclusive representation of all workers, but they also stymie any efforts to let workers break away from that forced representation.

Illinois could enact what is called “Worker’s Choice” – legislation that would allow workers to opt out of union fees and union representation. Instead, they would be allowed to represent themselves when negotiating their employment arrangements.

This would solve any “free rider” claims. The employee wouldn’t pay the union, and the union wouldn’t represent the employee.

It should have full union support. But it does not.

In 2017, state Rep. Allen Skillicorn, R-Crystal Lake, sponsored a Worker’s Choice bill for Illinois. But according to hearing records, unions such as the Fraternal Order of Police, the Chicago Laborers’ District Council-LMCC and the Laborers’ International Union-Midwest Region registered their opposition to the bills.

Opposing Worker’s Choice defies what workers want. According to a 2017 nationwide survey, 77 percent of union members agree that employees who do not pay dues should represent themselves in negotiations.

Fortunately, the Janus case may encourage unions to change their stance.

The International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, in anticipation of the Janus ruling, recently filed a case in federal court claiming unions should not be held to the “fair representation” clause of the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act.

That, essentially, is the effect of Worker’s Choice.

A Worker’s Choice bill has already been filed in 2018: House Bill 673. It may prove a less costly and more efficient route to the result Local 150 desires than litigation.

Unions’ “free rider” claims disparage their own members

Not only are the unions’ “free rider” arguments disingenuous, but they also attack the very members unions represent.

They are assuming their members would rather be so-called free riders than pay for supposedly valuable representation.

Perhaps what really lies behind union leaders’ drive to keep the forced-fee system is the fear that workers will find unions’ services simply aren’t worth paying for anymore – and will stop.

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