When I was 9 years old, I started taking a music class in school and I decided I no longer needed personal lessons from my long-time piano teacher. But I had such a hard time breaking the news to Mrs. Eberhart that I forgot to pay her for my final lesson. When I told this to my parents, they promptly turned me around and had me walk the several miles back to her house and make that payment.
The lesson was clear: Services must always be paid for. It’s a fundamental truth that I never forgot, and it’s one that the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court should embrace as they decide Janus v. AFSCME District Council 31.
The plaintiff in Janus is a government employee who did not learn the essential lesson my parents taught me so long ago. He claims that requiring those who benefit from collective bargaining to pay for the services and representation they receive from unions somehow violates the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected this claim 41 years ago in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, and the precedent has stood ever since. But now, five justices could overrule that decision and disrupt the lives of millions of employees — as well as the taxpayers they serve — in 22 states and the District of Columbia.
As the Supreme Court established in Abood, government employees can be required only to pay the part of dues that are used by the union to pay for the services they provide to the employees they represent: persons to negotiate contracts that provide employees with the compensation and other terms of employment they want; persons to meet with employer representatives to fairly resolve complaints about treatment on the job; and other administrative costs required to represent employees fully and fairly.
Unions are required by law to provide such full and fair representation. Almost all union officers are also required to be democratically elected by the members they represent. So, the idea that unions faithfully negotiate and carry out the desire of their members is not an idle assertion. It’s one backed up by strong legal rules and protections.
Should the justices overturn Abood, those who could be unduly harmed include police officers, firefighters, public school teachers, garbage collectors, highway workers and countless others who provide vital services to our communities. These are the public servants who keep us safe, healthy and educated — not to mention those who dutifully plow the roads every winter.
What’s more, this massive disruption could occur even though current law guarantees that not one cent of dues money can be used to support any candidate’s political campaign over an employee’s objection.
Paying a fair amount for services provided is a principle I’ve understood for decades. We can only hope that a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court understands it now — and realizes there is no good reason to abandon more than 40 years of precedent when deciding the Janus case.
Michael Hayes is an associate professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. He can be reached at [email protected].