Well-meaning Democrats can't rescue unions

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Massachusetts has traditionally been a union-friendly state. The Democratic Party, which dominates the Legislature, counts labor unions among its founding constituencies. Unions have always spent heavily on Beacon Hill to make sure their arguments are heard and acted upon.

Last month's 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees found in favor of the plaintiff, who brought suit against a law compelling him to pay union dues even though he was not a member (Eagle, June 30). This upset settled law based on the reasoning that any agency entering into collective bargaining with an employer (in other words, a union) benefited both members and non-members, and therefore had a right to extract expenses from everyone affected. Due to a tie-breaking vote by newly appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch, the source of funds filling public employee union war chests has been diminished, much to the delight of employers who seek to hobble the power of organized labor to shape government policy and legislation.

While the Janus decision only affects public sector workers (an enormous cohort numbering over 2 million employees nationwide), the not-unexpected decision has sent shivers through the entire union movement. Considering the shift in the high court's philosophy that promises to become even more pronounced once President Trump's replacement for retired Justice Anthony M. Kennedy is seated, there is little question that similar cases will wend their way through the court system with the intention of broadening Janus to cover all unions and their relations with non-members.

The protests began on Beacon Hill shortly after the decision was handed down (Eagle, July 8). House Speaker Robert DeLeo spoke comfortingly to union voters, declaring "We just want to make sure that unions still have a place here in Massachusetts and they play a role again in the Massachusetts economy." His counterpart, Senate President Harriette Chandler, went even further: "[The decision was] a systematic attack on public workers conceived of and paid for by deep-pocketed corporate interests." Ms. Chandler's quote could have come straight out of the AFSCME press office.

Bay State legislators' ardor for the union movement does not detract from the legitimacy of its cause. The fundamental unfairness of compulsory dues-paying is defensible from a strictly legal standpoint, but an equally strong case can be made in favor of it. A persuasive enough argument was made for the practice that the high court was convinced of its legitimacy in a decision that held for four decades.

It is unclear exactly what state legislative leaders can do to reverse or even mitigate the effects of the Janus decision. Attorney General Maura Healey perhaps best dramatized the helpless position state Democratic leaders find themselves in with her own reaction to Janus: She confined her comments to reassuring everyone that the relationship between unions and their members remains unchanged while acknowledging that non-union public workers no longer have to pony up dues without their permission. Since Janus only addressed payments by non-union members in the first place, her comments merely restate the new reality.

The reality is that to remain relevant unions must make the case that joining and paying dues is a wise investment. They must convince people that they are not corrupt and/or indifferent to taxpayers — the tone-deaf Massachusetts State Police Union is doing untold damage to the image of public unions. If state public unions can accomplish these twin tasks they will win members and maintain political influence. Failing that, no government body or official is in any position to help them.




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