The union myth of ‘free riders’

Mailee Smith

Senior Director of Labor Policy and Staff Attorney

Mailee Smith
October 14, 2017

The union myth of ‘free riders’

A solution to the union’s “free rider” claim is on the table. Why doesn’t it enjoy union support?

Government workers have been denied First Amendment freedoms of speech and association for 40 years.

But that could change in 2018, when the U.S. Supreme Court hears Janus v. AFSCME, an Illinois-based case seeking to restore First Amendment rights to government workers. For the last four decades, government workers have been forced to make an unfair decision: Pay fees to a union they may not support, or lose their jobs.

If government-worker unions had their way, those violations would continue. Instead of supporting worker freedom, these unions are disparaging their own members by claiming they will be “free riders” – workers who supposedly reap the benefits of union representation without paying for it – if the Supreme Court restores workers’ rights.

But any “free rider” claims are completely disingenuous. It was the government-worker unions that fought for the right to represent all employees, and it is the government-worker unions that lobby against changes to that law.

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

Unions like 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.

Employer-employee relations for government employees in Illinois are controlled by two statutes: the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act (for educational workers), and the Illinois 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, the Illinois Federation of Teachers 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 AFL-CIO was the primary author of the bill that became the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act.

Now unions are using that right – the right they fought for to exclusively represent all workers – as a red herring argument against worker freedom.

Unions lobby 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.

That would solve the unions’ “free rider” claims. The employee wouldn’t pay the union, but 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 Worker’s Choice legislation for Illinois. But according to hearing data on the Illinois General Assembly’s website, unions such as the Fraternal Order of Police, the Chicago Laborers’ District Council and the Laborers’ International Union registered their opposition to the bills.

Opposing Worker’s Choice defies common sense. It also 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.

But the unions aren’t giving their members what they want.

Unions’ “freeloader” claims disparage their own members

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

By assuming workers will immediately head to the exits and leave their unions, union leaders are suggesting the worst in their members. They are assuming their members would rather be alleged “freeloaders” than stay loyal to their unions.

Or, perhaps, union leaders are admitting the worst in themselves. Maybe they know their services simply aren’t worth paying for anymore.

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