Coerced speech in the form of forced union dues was ruled unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in Janus v. AFSCME just over one year ago. Rhode Island lawmakers are now on the path to ignoring that ruling with House Bill 5259 and Senate Bill 712, proposed legislation that, if passed, would allow union bosses to once again take worker income without their consent in order to advance a political agenda that workers may or may not actually support.
If House Bill 5259 and Senate Bill 712 are enacted, government union officials will be able to force non-members to pay for collective bargaining and a host of other union fees. The new law would force employers to report new hires to unions within five days of hiring them. This represents a threat to employee privacy; it is likely that, in addition to sharing employment information, employers will divulge workers’ contact information to unions. This would pave the way for harassment and intimidation of nonmembers. Workers who abstain from joining the union could be bullied and strong-armed by union bosses and organizers, who have a long history of such behavior.
Rebecca Friedrichs, a California public school teacher, experienced this bullying firsthand. She became critical of the union’s protectionism after watching them help an abusive teacher keep her job. She was forced to pay to advance union policy, despite her belief in merit-based hiring and vouchers. Her dissent was not welcome. When Friedrichs went to court over forced union dues, she became a target for harassment and slander by the union she had paid dues to throughout her entire teaching career. If Rhode Island passes this round of legislation, public workers will once again be forced to pay dues to unions like this, and unions will have no incentive to improve their behavior.
Some argue that unions are vital to the working class and could not exist without coercing money from laborers. This claim is demonstrably false. Even in the private sector, unions exist in every single state where payment of union dues is not coerced. In fact, union membership in Rhode Island increased in the year that Janus was decided. If unions are providing a valuable service to workers, they’ll have no problem convincing new members to join.
Rhode Island’s House passed HB 5259 and the measure now moves back to the Senate for final approval before heading to Governor Gina Raimondo’s (RI-D) desk. Unions have every reason to be optimistic.
The sovereignty of the individual is the central tenet of our constitution, and the Janus decision rightly reflects that. Workers deserve freedom of expression and should not have to kowtow to the purported needs of the collective. A person should never be forced to give their money to a political cause against their will. Whether a person chooses not to join a union for political, financial, or personal reasons, their right to control their money and political expression must be respected by employers and unions.