While public employees are generally not required to join unions, they are often required to pay fees to cover the cost of collective bargaining. A challenge to this practice is heading to the supreme court. While the legal issue will be settled by money and judges, there is also the moral issue of whether public employees should be compelled to pay such fees. As a point of full disclosure, I belong to multiple teacher unions. As such, this should be considered as a potentially biasing factor on my part.
One interesting argument against compelling public employees to pay these fees is based on an appeal to the right of free speech. As has also been argued in the courts, money is regarded as a form of speech. As such, a moral case can be made that forcing employees to pay union fees is a form of compelled speech. This is because unions, like corporations, use their financial resources to influence politicians and voters. A person who does not agree with the views expressed by the union is thus forced to “speak” on behalf of these views by paying fees (rather than union dues). Being an advocate of free speech and opposed to compelled speech, I do find this argument appealing. However, it does have some issues.
One basic concern is whether money should be regarded as speech/expression. While the courts have, so far, drawn a line at outright and explicit bribery, the logical conclusion of this notion is that if money is speech, then giving a politician money to do something is the same as trying to persuade them via other means. While it would be a slippery slope fallacy to insist that this view must lead inevitably to the legalization of bribery, proponents of the view have pushed through many other past barriers and now the sea of money is, metaphorically, eroding this last wall. As such, it is reasonable to worry that through a slow erosion money will gain even more of the status of traditional speech and someday what is now regarded as bribery will merely be legitimate persuasion. It can, of course, be argued that the bribery line can be drawn and held by claiming crossing the line would be harmful. But, so many lines have already been crossed by the flood of money that one should be forgiven for being worried how far the tide will go. As such, I am not a proponent of the broad idea that money is speech and that spenders should thus enjoy considerable freedom under this cover.
A second concern is that this same logic would seem to also apply to corporations. If it is morally wrong for employees to be forced to support a union whose views and activities they disagree with, then it would follow that it is also morally wrong for employees to be forced to support an employer whose views and activities they disagree with. For example, an employee at Hobby Lobby might not embrace the religious views and political activities of that company. While employees are not, obviously, required to write checks to their company’s lobbying and political efforts, the money generated by their labor does go to such activities. Just as an employee would make less income by being forced to pay fees to a union, an employee makes less income by being forced to receive less pay so that the employer can engage in lobbying and political activity. Naturally, this would only apply to employers that used business funds to engage in such activities. If employees are engaging in compelled speech by being forced to pay fees to unions, then employees are also engaged in compelled speech by having the money they generate being used to fund lobbying and political activities rather than getting that money in their paychecks. As such, if employees cannot be compelled to pay union dues on free speech grounds, then employees have the same right to demand that their money not be spent by their employer on activities they disagree with.
The way to respond to this argument is, obviously enough, to argue that there is a relevant difference between employers and unions. For example, it could be argued that people chose to work for companies and hence express a tacit agreement with their activities. After all, they can just get another job elsewhere. The easy and obvious reply to this is that the same would apply to people seeking employment where they must contribute fees to unions—if they do not agree, they can surely just get a job elsewhere.
It could also be argued that employers have special rights to compel speech that unions lack; the challenge would be to make such a case in a principled way. Merely liking employers and loathing unions would obviously not be a principled justification.
Considering the above discussion, if employees have a free speech right to not pay union dues, then they have the free speech right to refuse to allow their employer to use the money they generate for political activities they disagree with. As such, if employees can get the benefits of the union without paying the fees, then employees should have the choice of contributing some of their pay to the political activities of their employer or getting that sum in their paycheck.