Right-Wing Media Discover A Lawless Executive Order They Support -- It's Anti-Union, Of Course

Right-wing media are celebrating Gov. Bruce Rauner's (R-IL) executive order blocking public-sector unions from collecting “fair share” fees from the state employees they represent, even though there is no precedent for such a move. National Review and The Wall Street Journal are praising Rauner for “thinking creatively” by effectively turning Illinois into a “right-to-work” state without legislative approval, even though those same outlets have criticized President Obama for issuing lawful executive orders without Republican input.

Rauner's order specifically targets “fair share” dues that nonmembers in unionized workplaces pay to cover the cost of union representation for their collective bargaining agreements. Illinois law already prohibits fair share fees (as opposed to full membership dues) from being used to fund union political activities, but Rauner nevertheless issued his executive order and wrongly claimed that “an employee who is forced to pay unfair share dues is being forced to fund political activity with which they disagree.” A number of states have passed "right-to-work" laws that target these kinds of dues with the express purpose of weakening the bargaining power of unions. But Rauner saved himself some time by ignoring decades of Supreme Court labor-law precedent and imposing the “right-to-work” standard on state employees without running it past the legislature first.

Right-wing media are not particularly concerned with Rauner's unilateral and legally questionable antics. Rauner's lawyers, however, apparently realize the unusual nature of this executive action. On the governor's behalf, they have defensively filed a lawsuit asking a district court to preemptively declare his order legal on the radical assumption that all union activity -- even that related to collective bargaining -- is inherently political.

In a February 11 post, National Review writer Patrick Brennan applauded Rauner's “daring” and legal maneuvering, celebrating that “Rauner's Illinois is in limbo -- and, duly elected, he deserves credit for putting them there.” The Journal also praised Rauner in a February 10 editorial for “thinking creatively” since the “Democrats who have a supermajority in the state legislature won't make Illinois a right-to-work state.”

This is an interesting about-face on executive orders from these outlets, which have attacked Obama's executive action on immigration in the face of an obstructionist GOP-controlled House as an "abuse of power" and "executive overreach" -- despite there being plenty of legal and historical precedent to support Obama's orders. In a November 16 editorial, the Journal argued that it would “support more liberal immigration but not Mr. Obama's means of doing it on his own whim because he's tired of working with Congress.” Similarly, in a November 6 editorial, National Review complained that for Obama to “act on immigration without engaging the country's new congressional majority would be a defiance of the legislative branch, and of the American electorate.”

But Rauner's order gets a pass from National Review now, because it is enough that “after a deep legal review, he thinks the fair-share fees are unconstitutional forced expression.”

Apparently Rauner's deep legal review involves rewriting the basics of labor law. As the Illinois Economic Policy Institute explained, Rauner's claim that “state workers are forced to pay union dues for political purposes” is “false”:

Illinois law does not prohibit labor organizations with state collective bargaining agreements from contributing to elected officials, but it also does not mandate that workers must pay for political activities that are endorsed by their representative union. The Illinois Public Labor Relations Act requires all employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement to pay their “fair share” of the cost of collective bargaining and contract administration. Fair share dues “shall not include any fees for contributions related to the election or support of any candidate for political office” but an employee can make "voluntary political contributions in conjunction with his or her fair share payment" [emphasis added]. Since the 1988 Communications Workers of America v. Beck case in the U.S. Supreme Court, unions are authorized to collect from non-members only fees and dues necessary to perform collective bargaining operations, and workers can object to paying a portion of their dues toward political activities.

As conservative Justice Antonin Scalia explained in a 1991 labor law case, nonmembers who don't pay dues “are free riders whom the law requires the union to carry -- indeed, requires the union to go out of its way to benefit, even at the expense of its other interests. In the context of bargaining, a union must seek to further the interests of its nonmembers; it cannot, for example, negotiate particularly high wage increases for its members in exchange for accepting no increases for others.” Without compulsory fair share dues for the collective bargaining agreement from which both non-members and members benefit, unions face a serious “free rider” problem and threat to their financial viability.

Which, for the National Review and the Journal, is clearly the point.

There's no question that the current makeup of the Supreme Court is less sympathetic to the labor movement than it has been in the past. In 2014, the conservative majority ruled that home care workers in Illinois (who are paid with state Medicaid funds but are not full-fledged public employees) cannot be compelled to pay dues to a union they don't want to join, but ultimately declined to strike down a 1977 case that allows public-sector unions to collect “fair share” dues from nonmembers. Even though Justice Samuel Alito's majority opinion questioned the “foundations” of that 1977 ruling -- basically inviting a challenge like Rauner's -- the case is still good law.

In light of this precedent, some might call Rauner's actions an appeal to the "judicial activism" they frequently condemn. The Journal, on the other hand, is calling this “thinking creatively.”

Photo via Flickr/Metropolitan Planning Council under a Creative Commons License.