This week, the United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that public employees cannot be forced to pay union dues. While politicians seldom have the will to stand up to public employee unions, hopefully the Court’s decision will embolden state legislators to fix other problems with dues collection, as well.

Mark Janus, an Illinois non-union public-sector employee, joined the cause initially filed by Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner. Janus was forced to pay union dues, called “fair share” fees, to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) for collective bargaining representation, despite not wanting to be part of the union. A decades-old rule said that non-union public employees could opt out of union contributions for political purposes. However, they couldn’t do so for collective bargaining and other union efforts they “benefited” from and, as such, had to pay “fair share” fees. Janus argued that forced dues payment violated his constitutional rights, and the Court agreed.

“We conclude that this arrangement violates the free speech rights of nonmembers by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern … Compelling individuals to mouth support for views they find objectionable violates that cardinal constitutional command, and in most contexts, any such effort would be universally condemned.”

Mandatory dues may now be a thing of the past for public-sector employees, but in Texas the legislature’s inaction on union dues reform means that taxpayers are still mandated to subsidize dues collection.

Public unions in Texas currently enjoy the luxury of having state and local government entities automatically deduct union members’ dues from their paycheck and remit the payment to the union. The cost may be negligible, as payroll is done electronically, but there’s undoubtedly a conflict of interest when a government entity collects dues for, and is lobbied by, the same entities.

During the 2016 campaign cycle in Texas, public unions spent more than $1.6 million supporting candidates that would help advance their causes, which are often at odds with taxpayers’ and business owners’ interests. Included are contentious issues such as mandated minimum wage increases, paid sick leave, and restricting employers’ rights.

Two top recipients of union dollars have been outgoing Speaker Joe Straus and outgoing State Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana). These two also played the biggest role in killing union dues reform legislation.

It’s not conjecture. Ahead of the 2017 legislative session, a public employee group released a letter saying, “Last session, our friend Byron Cook led the effort that stopped further consideration of the bill that would have ended payroll deduction of union dues … We cannot afford to lose a friend like State Representative Byron Cook.” The same letter details the close alliance between Straus and Cook.

Session after session, union dues reform bills have made it through the Senate, but have been stalled in the House. Even when it became a priority of Gov. Greg Abbott and a special session item, it still failed to pass.

Texas voters have long supported ending the practice.

Ending collection of union dues was a plank in the Republican Party of Texas’ 2016 platform and was recently approved by delegates for the 2018 platform. Over two million Texans voting in the 2016 primary voted in favor of a proposition for the same purpose. Eighty-three percent agreed that government should not be collecting union dues

Opponents of this reform argue that it is “more secure” for their members to have the government access their private information rather than an external, private source. This is only true if you disregard the fact that Texas governments were the victims of two of the ten largest data breaches.

In 2011, the Comptroller’s office had a breach that made public the private information of 3.5 million Texans and cost taxpayers $1.8 million. Again in 2012, the personal information of 6.5 million Texas voters was compromised by a breach in the Texas Attorney General’s Office. Additionally, the Texas Department of Public Safety, Dallas Police Department, and Texas Police Chiefs Association have all been hacked in the past.

Another argument regularly made by opponents is that forcing private dues collection adds an undue burden to members and groups. While it shouldn’t be taxpayers’ concern to alleviate that burden anyway, the argument simply isn’t true.

Last year, one of the biggest opponents of union dues reform, the Houston Federation of Teachers, voluntarily began converting its members to private dues collection. They planned to switch the entire system over by August 2017, even saying on their website, “The HFT has begun the process to convert all members to ACH Bank Draft to pay union membership dues … We’ve developed a safe and secure method to pay your dues through bank draft almost the same as how you pay them now through payroll deduction.”

The truth is, unions are deeply concerned that if their members have to consciously deduct dues once their paycheck hits their bank account and pay them to the union, like a bill, they will begin to question the return that they are getting on their investment and may find that it is not as beneficial as once believed.

Last session, bills were filed by State Sen. Joan Huffman (R–Southside Place) and State Rep. Sarah Davis (R–West University) to end the practice. While the Senate acted on Senate Bill 13 during the regular session and then Senate Bill 7 during the special session, the House never budged once the bill met its fate in the lower chamber’s State Affairs committee chaired by Cook.

With changes in the House coming, unwavering public interest, and the U.S. Supreme Court leading the way, support for ending government deduction of union dues is unquestionably there. Now citizens must demand that the Texas Legislature finally act on ending this practice next session.

Charles Blain

Charles Blain is the president of Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute. A native of New Jersey, he is based in Houston and writes on municipal finance and other urban issues.


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