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Potential Blow to Big Labor: CUNY Professors’ Free-Speech Case

Union officials often complain about the influence of “dark money” in politics, claiming it is used to manipulate the system against workers. However, they conveniently ignore the fact that Big Labor itself has rigged the system in its favor by using money forcibly collected from workers under the threat of termination if they refuse to pay. This power to extort money from workers still exists in the private sector for those not protected by state Right-to-Work laws, which ensure that workers cannot be forced into a union to keep their jobs.

However, in a landmark ruling five years ago, the US Supreme Court put an end to union officials’ ability to compel government workers to fund union politics. The court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME in 2018 recognized that public employees are protected by the First Amendment and cannot be forced to subsidize government-union speech. This is because the actions of government unions are inherently political, as their purpose is to negotiate how the government operates.

The impact of the Janus ruling has been significant. It declared unconstitutional the legal framework that union officials used to compel workers to subsidize union political activities, amounting to tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars over the years. The case, argued by attorneys from the National Right to Work Foundation, immediately freed around 500,000 nonmember unionized government employees who were previously required to pay union fees. Since then, the Foundation has been involved in over 50 follow-up cases, helping to enforce the rights of an additional 70,000 public employees.

Research suggests that since the Janus ruling, approximately 1.2 million government employees have resigned from unions or chosen not to join, representing around one in five American public-sector workers. This exodus has resulted in an estimated loss of $733 million in annual union revenue. While this is a significant blow to union bosses, fully enforcing the Janus ruling does not guarantee an end to their undue political influence.

In the majority of US states, even after Janus, laws still grant union officials the power to impose their “representation” on all workers in a public sector workplace, even those who oppose the union or voted against its presence. This “monopoly bargaining” power allows union leaders to control the contracts, salaries, benefits, and work rules of workers who openly oppose them. It also forces elected officials to negotiate with union bosses on public policy matters, leading to increased costs for taxpayers and reduced efficiency and accountability.

To fully protect the First Amendment rights of government workers, it is crucial that union officials are not permitted to force their monopoly representation on public workers. The Goldstein v. Professional Staff Congress (PSC) case, currently before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, presents an opportunity to establish such protection. In this case, six professors from the City University of New York are seeking to invalidate a New York state law that compels their representation by the PSC union. These professors vehemently oppose being represented by radical PSC officials who have attacked them personally and made anti-Semitic statements. They argue that the forced representation scheme violates their freedom of association under the First Amendment.

Public-sector unions should not be allowed to leverage their monopoly bargaining power to further their agendas in government and politics, nor should they be able to force workers to financially support that power. The Janus ruling already established the unconstitutionality of the latter. Hopefully, in the future, it will be firmly established that public workers also have the First Amendment freedom to reject union representation they oppose.

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