If SCOTUS whacks the unions, there needs to be a plan B

If the Supreme Court rules against public sector unions, their supporters must find new ways to promote collective bargaining. 

By Jared Bernstein and Ben Spielberg – The Washington Post

The Supreme Court heard arguments in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association on Monday. While the plaintiffs framed their argument in free speech terms, the lawsuit’s anti-union backers clearly view the case as an opportunity to further weaken union bargaining clout. We’re not SCOTUS watchers, but members of this court have been unsympathetic to unions in the past. There’s a good chance the plaintiffs will win.

If Friedrichs succeeds, unions will no longer be able to require contributions from individuals who benefit from the improved compensation and working conditions they negotiate. And if that happens, it’s not just unions that will lose. It’s also non-union workers, as we expect negative “spillover” effects to go well beyond the teachers and other public sector workers directly affected by the lawsuit. Add in the general decline in union membership in recent years and the policy lesson is glaringly clear: While doing all we can to protect the bargaining power that still exists, those of us who believe in promoting broadly shared prosperity must explore and develop new ways to bolster collective bargaining.

First, consider the stakes of Friedrichs. Public sector unions in 25 states would be directly affected (25 states are already “Right to work”… for less). As Freeman et al. recently documented, there is a 32 percentage point difference in public sector union density between states that do and don’t allow agency fees (dues non-union members pay to support union bargaining on their behalf); Friedrichs’s empowerment of free riders would mean that “unions have less money to service the same number of members [and] that the union presence and contribution to worker welfare [would] manifestly shrink.”

Low- and middle-income Americans would suffer the consequences, which is why civil rights groups oppose the lawsuit (note also that the organization behind Friedrichs has spent the last 20 years fighting against affirmative action, the voting rights act, and various other initiatives that help disadvantaged groups of people). Unionized public sector workers on average make 8 percent more than their non-union counterparts. And, as noted, since unions historically create higher wages and better workplace norms in places where they’re active, there are negative spillover effects to everyone else when they disappear. Wages on the whole are depressed by about 3 percent in Right to Work states, even after controlling for prices, demographics, and labor market characteristics. In addition, women and black workers in particular benefit from unions, which cut the gender wage gap in the public sector by half and provide a wage premium that is about 1.4 times higher for black workers than for non-black workers. Read more >>