July 03, 2014

Horse 1707 - Harris v. Quinn - Compulsory Unionism No More

Public-sector unions are bracing for a Supreme Court decision Monday that could deal a major blow to their wealth and political clout.
Union leaders fear that conservative justices will use the case, Harris v. Quinn, to strike down laws in 26 states requiring teachers, police officers, firefighters and other public-sector employees to pay dues to the unions that negotiate contracts on their behalf, even if the workers don’t want to become union members.
- Politico, 29th Jun 2014

The Supreme Court of the United States in the pending decision of Harris v. Quinn (2014) might effectively strike down the ability of a workplace to demand from its workers that they compulsorily join a union. There seems to be a storm brewing on Capitol Hill and given that I'm literally on the other side of the world (and that US politics sometimes makes as much sense to me as trying to nail strawberry jelly to a battleship), I'm completely at a loss to explain as to why this was still even on the statute book.

Fair enough, Article 23 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of their interests, but the reciprocal of that is surely that everyone also has the right not to join a union should they choose not to. Given that the United States still remains ambivalent to anything that the United Nations says though, perhaps this isn't all that surprising. When it comes to rights issues, the United States has a long and proud tradition of being ponderously slow to change.

Unions have an extremely bad rap in the United States and possibly deservedly so. Although unions exist with the aim of trying to improve conditions and pay for their members, they also are seen as troublemakers in America and as the cause of strikes.
Most famously, Ronald Reagan deliberately smashed the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization to pieces in 1981, following a strike. More recently, the United Automobile Workers were blamed in a trial by media, for the collapse of General Motors and Chrysler when they both underwent Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. Very little consideration was given or even pointed at management who through their incredible short-sightedness, never even once bothered to set aside the necessary funds for the retirement plans which their employees had negotiated for.
Given that I am a creature of the left and I do happen to think that unions have done some incredibly useful things in the world, such as negotiated for paid holidays, sick leave, overtime and penalty rates and even something as obvious as the installation of fire escapes in buildings and other employee safety measures, that I'd fully endorse unions (and indeed I do) but even I think that the idea of forcing people to join a union is misguided; even if they do happen to improve the lives and well-being of their members.

Whilst it it perfectly true that workers' conditions have been collectively improved by unions, they are after all, similar in principle to that of a political party; the main difference being the theatre in which they operate.
Unions are about the same general sort of thing to that of political parties and that is the control and exercising of power. Just like I don't think that people should be forced to join a political party but are free to join one should they so desire, the same principle should also apply to that of unions.
The United States has a very different set of political traditions to say, the UK, Australia or New Zealand in that unions themselves didn't form political parties to exercise political power from the floors of parliament. In those three countries the Labo(u)r parties saw that in order to exercise power, they needed to get voices into parliament and to change legislation directly.
The United States though, has never really embraced this sort of exercise of power. The two major political machines were firmly established from about the 1850s onwards and although they both may have flirted with the unions from time to time, the unions were either through choice or futility, forced to play the same game as any other interest in American politics - that of lobbying.

What honestly surprises me though, is that it is only now in 2014 that the Supreme Court has decided to strike off compulsory unionism. This is a land which prides itself on and even styles itself as "the world's greatest democracy" (and still only manages to offer two viable choices). Compulsory unionism smacks to me as being like a closed shop and I have no idea how or why such a thing was ever allowed to have existed in the first place, much less why it's survived for so long.

When I submitted this to the person who asked for my comments, they replied that this was not the sort of tack that they were expecting. Rather than give the game away and publish who that was, I can only say that "these are not the droids that you are looking for" and remind them that even during the construction of the DS-2 Orbital Imperial Planetary Ore Extractor Station (Death Star - propaganda, I tell you), the tradespeople on board were free to or free not to join The Techno Union if they so desired... and they all died, needlessly due to an act of senseless terrorism.

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