WSJ: Union Benefits Are So Good, Non-Members Should Get Them For Free

The Wall Street Journal editorial board is siding with four teachers in California who are suing their unions, claiming “coercion” and “political extortion” because “critical benefits” are being withheld from non-member employees who don't pay for them, but failed to mention the challenge is seeking to overturn decades-old precedent.

In April, four teachers filed suit against the California Teachers' Association and several other teachers' unions, arguing that their denial of certain benefits to non-members was unconstitutional, despite Supreme Court precedent to the contrary. The teachers had refused to join their representative unions because they disagree with the groups' “political activity,” which is funded by members who pay full membership dues. While even non-members are required to pay some dues to the union -- a reduced share known as “agency” or “fair share fees” -- that money cannot be used for political activities.

In a May 4 editorial, the Journal sided with the suing teachers, calling their lawsuit an opportunity “to end the political extortion” by unions, despite the fact that the Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of agency fees. The editorial took special exception to the fact that non-members aren't covered by a disability insurance program that provides paid maternity leave, claiming that it is unfair for teachers to have to “ante up to receive substantial employment benefits”:

Teachers who disagree with the union's agenda can opt out of membership and not pay dues. Trouble is, they then must forfeit material benefits including legal representation in workplace disputes as well as union insurance that is necessary for disability and maternity leave. They also cannot vote on collective-bargaining agreements that govern the terms and conditions of their employment.

The coercion is particularly insidious in the case of maternity leave, which the union does not collectively bargain. Teachers who want to take leaves of absence are guaranteed full-time pay only for their unused sick days. After that, their pay gets docked substantially. So if new mothers want to take a couple of months off, they in effect must either join the union -- and finance its political advocacy -- or take a huge pay cut.

Imagine if a bank made maternity leave and flex time available only to workers who contribute to a Republican political action committee. This is essentially what the union public-school monopoly does: restrict critical benefits to those who support their political spending.

But benefits like legal representation in certain employment disputes and specialized disability insurance aren't “employment benefits” -- they're union benefits, and they cost money. As the California Teachers Association pointed out in a brief filed in a similar case, most school district employers opt out of a state program that would provide similar maternity leave benefits, but because full union members want the additional coverage, the union offers it as an earned benefit. In other words, the four teachers want all the benefits of full union membership without having to pay for it.

At the very least, the Journal's admission that unions offer benefits so extraordinary that everyone should get them for free is a marked shift in its rhetoric on the labor movement. It remains to be seen if the Supreme Court will agree, however, that unions should be forced to offer benefits to “free riders.” Even conservative Justice Antonin Scalia has said that “where the state imposes upon the union a duty to deliver services, it may permit the union to demand reimbursement for them; or, looked at from the other end, where the state creates in the nonmembers a legal entitlement from the union, it may compel them to pay the cost.”

Photo via A. Michael Simms/Flickr under a Creative Commons License.