Public Sector Unions, the First Amendment, and the Costs of Collective Bargaining

April
2016
Aaron Tang

Labor laws in twenty-two states permit government employers to compel all employees to pay “fair share fees” to support a union’s collective bargaining activities, even if the union advocates policies to which some workers are ideologically opposed. Thousands of collective bargaining agreements include provisions to this effect, and hundreds of thousands of objecting workers are forced to pay such fees each year.

At its core, this practice implicates a significant tension between two important principles: the First Amendment’s objective of protecting individuals from compelled support of unwanted messages, and labor law’s concern with fostering the collective benefits of worker representation. When confronted with a challenge to fair share fees nearly forty years ago in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the Supreme Court held that labor law takes precedence, such that the First Amendment intrusions produced by fair share fees are constitutionally justified. Twice in the past four years, however, the Supreme Court has indicated that it is poised to reverse course and strike down fair share fee clauses under the First Amendment, overruling Abood in the process. And on the last day of the 2014 Term, the Court granted certiorari in a case presenting just that opportunity.

In this Article, I challenge the conventional wisdom that public sector union financing implicates an inevitable trade-off between First Amendment principles and labor law’s core objectives. There is a simple alternative to the fair share fee union financing model that would permit public employers to pursue their broad interests in effective workplace representation without sacrificing the individual expressive interests of objecting employees: In lieu of fair share fee clauses, government employers can negotiate provisions under which they reimburse a union for its collective bargaining costs directly. Such an approach would free objecting workers of the compulsion to support an objectionable message and ensure that unions have the financial security they need to zealously represent worker interests. Moreover, the government can implement this alternative in a cost-neutral fashion, reducing future wage raises or gratuitous benefits to offset the added costs of union reimbursement.

But this government-payer alternative is not just a theoretical solution to what has been widely understood as an intractable debate—it has doctrinal significance, too. For once identified, the government-payer workaround becomes part of the constitutional analysis itself. That is to say, under First Amendment doctrine, the government’s ability to reimburse a union for its bargaining costs directly is a less restrictive alternative that renders fair share fees unconstitutional by comparison.

This Article explores the theoretical and doctrinal consequences of the government-payer alternative to fair share fees. In doing so, it proposes an answer to a longstanding puzzle in the Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence regarding the proper standard of scrutiny for compelled fees—a puzzle that the Supreme Court has explicitly recognized yet left unresolved. The Article concludes by offering a few observations concerning the impact of the government-payer alternative for the future of public sector labor unions and the First Amendment more broadly.

This article appears in the April 2016 Issue: Volume 91, Number 1