The U.S Supreme Court will soon hear a case challenging the agency shop in the public sector.
Opponents of the agency shop, which requires non-union employees to pay union dues, argue that it infringes on an individual’s freedom to work, violates one’s freedom of speech, confers upon unions a privilege (payment of dues) unavailable to other associations, and grants undue power to labor organizations.
Each argument is specious.
First, the agency shop makes no more infringement on freedom to work than any other condition of employment required by an employer, such as confidentiality, non-compete and mandatory employment arbitration agreements. A major difference between the agency shop and these other conditions is that the former is bilaterally negotiated while the latter are decreed by management.
Second, the agency shop in no way abridges an employee’s right to object to a union’s positions on issues taken at the bargaining table or in politics. Any employee in a bargaining unit may protest any position taken. In addition, non-union employees may block the use of their dues for political activities.
Third, unions are granted the right to negotiate the agency shop under existing labor laws because they have a legal obligation to represent all the employees in the bargaining unit, even those who choose not to join the union. Non-union employees represented by labor organizations reap the gains of higher wages and better benefits negotiated into contracts. They also are entitled to union representation in the grievance process.
Simply put, unions, which are duly recognized bargaining representatives, enjoy the “privilege” of negotiating agency shops because of their legal obligation to represent all, regardless of membership status.
Finally, the monetary “windfall” ascribed to the agency shop, which presumably might consign to labor unwarranted power, needs to be put into perspective. Labor’s financial wherewithal pales in comparison to business.
The total income from dues and other employee-based fees generated by all national labor organizations in the United States amounted to $4.05 billion in 2016. This sum is merely a fraction of the net sales of any one of the largest firms in the U.S., such as Amazon, which totaled $136 billion in 2016.
Indeed, the financially disadvantaged place of labor in politics is revealed in the 15-to-1 advantage businesses had in expenditures made in the 2016 federal elections: $3.4 billion compared to labor’s $205 million.
The animosity towards labor unions is palpable. Opponents of the agency shop seek not to spread freedom or democracy in the workplace but rather to emasculate unions. The agency shop is attacked because it promotes the institutional security of unions.
Viable unions are essential to giving voice to otherwise mute workers in the workplace and in politics. There is no other cohesive countervailing power to corporate dominance. Exclusive representation combined with the agency shop promotes equity in the workplace, prevents splintering of the workforce, and advances responsible union representation.
Marick F. Masters is director of Labor@Wayne at Wayne State University, which includes the Douglas A. Fraser Center for Workplace Issues. He is also a professor of business and adjunct professor of political science.
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