About Face on Forced Dues

Former union boss backs end to mandatory labor payments

Supreme Court
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March 6, 2018

The former head of the Vermont AFL-CIO is now speaking out against forced-dues payments in the workforce.

Ben Johnson spent his career in education and union leadership. He spent six years as head of one of Vermont's largest teachers' union, the American Federation of Teachers, and won the support of his fellow labor leaders. He was elected to lead the state chapter of the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor organization, for three years. His experience, however, has convinced him that the labor movement should stop collecting mandatory fees from workers or coercing their association.

"The business model is: You win one election, collect the money, and your cash flow stays rock-solid because nothing is forcing me to do what members want me to do," he told the Washington Free Beacon in a phone interview. "Frankly, we deserve better than the labor organizations we've been given."

Mandatory dues payments are now at the center of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. An Illinois state worker is seeking to overturn 40 years of precedent that allow public sector agencies to require union fee or dues payments as a condition of employment. The case has elicited strong opposition from government unions, including the teachers' union Johnson once led. AFT called the suit a "blatantly political and well-funded plot to use the highest court in the land to further rig the economic rules against everyday working people" in a September release.

Johnson welcomes the suit and hopes the Supreme Court will side with unwilling fellow travelers that unions have branded as free riders because they benefit from union contracts without paying for negotiations. "Only unions and the government don't have to worry about the problem of appealing to their membership," he said. "It becomes very easy to forget that members don't have to pay you."

Johnson said policies meant to strengthen unions by enhancing their financial position have weakened them by making them less responsive to workers. The system lends itself to a growing distance between union leaders and the members they are supposed to serve. He sees the union as a "membership organization" no different than associations like the NRA or Planned Parenthood. Both of those groups would see dues payments or donations dry up if they failed to represent the interests of their customer base, but labor organizations lack such measures to assess themselves.

"With mandatory dues, how could that not change how leadership relates to members?" Johnson asked. "It probably leads to delusional thinking ... unions don't have to deal with the fact that members may revolt. You're insulated from that."

Mandatory membership puts organizational priorities ahead of meeting the needs of workers. Johnson insisted that does not arise from any animus on the parts of union officials: "Nearly everyone I met in the union world is dedicated and hardworking." Rather it stems from institutional distortions brought on by forced dues. He dismissed union concerns that Janus could lead to a free riders problem in which even union supporters drop dues payments to save a buck knowing they'll reap the benefits anyway. He expects the decision to force a much-needed reckoning between labor leaders and workers at least among some labor unions.

"I cannot make predictions about how all unions will respond," he said of a Janus decision that sides with the plaintiffs. "I am confident that some will change, that some will be radically willing to respond to their members."

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on Janus in June when its term ends.

Published under: Unions