Will You Let Free Riders Suck Your Union Dry?

Photo: AP

Last year, many people feared that the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Janus case would decimate the membership of public employee unions. That hasn’t happened. But it has produced an associated problem: tens of thousands of free-riding bloodsuckers.

Before the Janus ruling, this was the law: If a workplace unionized, everyone who works there is covered by the union contract. If you were covered by a union contract, you did not have to be a union member paying full union dues (if, for example, you objected to the political activities of the union, or had any other weird ideological reason for not wanting to be an official member), but you did have to pay “agency fees,” which were essentially fees that helped cover the costs that the union spent to negotiate your contract. This setup let people who despise unions for whatever reason avoid being official members, but it also allowed unions to avoid going broke by being forced to expend a ton of resources securing contracts for people who did not pay any of the associated costs. It struck a balance that worked for decades.

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After Janus, the rules for public employees changed. The Supreme Court now says that no one has to pay union dues or agency fees if they don’t want to—even though they may still enjoy the benefits of a union contract. In other words, it lets people who would have paid agency fees before simply stop paying anything. The union is still obligated to negotiate a contract for them and represent them as members of the workplace, but they pay none of the associated costs. It has created a wide opening for “free riders,” who can get all the benefits of a union and give nothing back.

For obvious reasons, there was much hand-wringing in the union world about whether the ruling would cause public employee union membership to plummet. The good news is, the answer is no—thanks to much organizing work by the major public unions, along with a wave of national teachers strikes and an overall political climate that has brought a new jolt of energy to the labor movement—there have not been any steep membership declines. On the other hand, newly released numbers show that all those people who had been paying agency fees—the people who already disliked unions—have indeed taken this opportunity to become full-on freeloaders.

Bloomberg Law reports that AFSCME and SEIU, two of the biggest unions for public employees, each lost more than 90% of their agency fee-payers in the past year, a combined loss of more than 200,000 people. Teachers unions experienced a similar decline. Though membership gains elsewhere balanced these losses out, one thing is clear: At unionized workplaces across America, there are now hundreds of thousands of people free riding on the union dues of everyone else.

What can we do about that?

One obvious solution would be to just dump all the freeloaders from the union. If you don’t pay your fair share, you don’t get the union contract. Unfortunately that solution is not tenable under current labor law, and there is a significant strain of thinking even within unions that such a change would hurt organized labor and lead to chaos. Assuming that for the foreseeable future, public unions may be riddled with these ungrateful, selfish people leeching off the contributions of everyone else, it is worth brainstorming creative actions that may show them the error of their ways:

  • Post the names of everyone who is not paying union dues on the bulletin board at work, or spraypaint them on the wall.
  • Mail lists naming all free riders to the home of everyone in your union.
  • Every day at noon, have a group of union members stand atop a desk at work and read off the list of freeloaders one by one, in dramatic fashion. Everyone wears union t-shirts to work except them. Now they feel stupid.
  • Have a great party; don’t invite them.
  • Invite all of them to a bad party while your great party is going on next door.
  • Ostracize them personally, professionally, and socially until they break under the shame of their own greed and realize the fundamental need for solidarity in the working class.
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The free riders are now among us. They are stealing from everyone. Don’t let them get away with it.

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About the author

Hamilton Nolan

Senior Writer. Hamilton@SplinterNews.com