Against the First Amendment: How Public-Sector Unions Neglect Free Speech

No one should be forced to join or contribute to any organization if they do not want to do so. This principle forms the bedrock of our society, yet influential Americans still disagree with it.

For instance, Richard Trumka, president of AFL-CIO, thinks that liberty means the “the freedom to bargain collectively.” However, Trumka does not understand that the First Amendment to the Constitution grants two freedoms as part of its charter. That is, Americans possess the freedom both to associate and to refrain from associating.

Some influential labor unions also seem unwilling to accept the full implications of associative rights. In 2005, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) launched a plan to stop a free-speech ballot initiative. This initiative aimed to prevent SEIU from garnishing fees from 36,000 non-union state employees in order to fund union-approved political campaigns.

On June 21, the Supreme Court ruled against SEIU’s special dues assessment in the Knox v. SEIU decision. Seven of the Justices could not swallow the fact that the SEIU tried to use the wages of independent workers for its own partisan objectives. They lambasted the SEIU’s “aggressive use of power” as “indefensible.”

But union bosses are not the only ones who reject the full import of the First Amendment. Illinois Governor Pat Quinn issued an executive order to unionize 4,500 home-care workers without their consent, in order to extract dues for the SEIU. Now, he is embroiled in a lawsuit that may be taken up by the Supreme Court.

In this case — Harris v. Quinn — Governor Quinn and the SEIU argue that workers who receive any kind of state money automatically become employees of the state. They also suppose that existence of state licensing laws makes these workers de facto employees of the state.

But this logic leads only to absurdities. If we follow the argument of the SEIU, any doctor or lawyer who receives a state payment or license automatically becomes a government employee! Furthermore, these home health care employees work as independent contractors. They are hired and fired by the patients themselves — not by the state of Illinois. The SEIU can actually do very little to affect the employment terms of the workers it purports to represent. However, it wants to use their money to subsidize its political speech anyway.

Yet this question should also reflect a deeper concern with political rights and common sense. As for the SEIU, it does have the freedom to make political speech with the dues exacted from workers who willingly participate in the union.

Problems arise when that money is sheared off unwilling home care workers and then used to support the political activity of that union. When the former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich made 20,000 home care workers eligible for unionization in 2010, those workers voted overwhelmingly against union representation. But, incredibly, they still pay fees to the SEIU. The Cato Institute recently lamented this use of “sham employment relationships to circumvent First Amendment rights.”

Consider the story of Pam Harris, a primary plaintiff in the Harris case. She cares for her 20-year-old son Josh, who has a severe genetic disorder. “I am not an employee of the state,” Harris says. “I work from my home. I don’t want the union in my home.” She wants to pay for her son’s expensive health care needs, not a union. The SEIU and the State of Illinois should respect her choice.

Hopefully the Supreme Court takes up Harris and respects both the right to associate and the right to avoid associating. These First Amendment rights are part of what makes America so unique. We should not cast either of them aside for the love of politically favored organizations.