As discussed in the previous essay, the supreme court will be considering whether employees can be compelled to pay fees to public unions to cover the cost of collective bargaining. While the legal issue will be settled by money and the courts, my focus is on the moral issue of whether this is morally acceptable or not.
Proponents of unions advance the classic free-rider argument in favor of this compulsion. Public unions are generally required by law to provide services to non-member employees. Because of this, if employees did not pay fees to offset the costs of these benefits, then they would be exploiting the employees who did pay. This would be tantamount to stealing from those who paid. This argument is morally compelling, and this can be illustrated by the following analogy.
Imagine that a Lunch Group was formed by people who went to lunch together and this group provided lunch and other benefits in return for a membership fee. Now suppose that a law was passed that required the Lunch Group to provide lunches to anyone who happened to be in the same restaurant as the group when they had lunch. While this would be a great deal for any freeloader who happened along, it would not be fair for the paying members of the Lunch Group. Since people could get the benefits of the Lunch Group without contributing, the group would soon be destroyed: paying members would have little incentive to remain, outsiders would want to exploit the group and thus the funding would soon be exhausted.
Naturally, some of the free-riders might argue that they are entitled to the free lunch, but that they should not be expected to contribute to the group because they do not like the other benefits and disagree with the conversations held by the group members. They just want the free lunch. This is, of course, analogous to the free speech argument advanced in favor of not paying the union fees: the employees want the benefits of the union, but do not want to pay and justify this by claiming that they do not agree with the political views and activities of the union. However, this seems absurd.
The no-free lunch reasoning is normally very appealing to conservatives. For example, it is something of a stock conservative position that people who can work should work rather than freeloading on the social welfare system. They, not surprisingly, criticize people who exploit the system as free riders. This same principle should apply in the case of public unions: if free riding on others is morally wrong, then free riding on a public union is morally wrong as well.
Fortunately, there is an easy solution to the problem—one that is typically endorsed by conservatives: workers should be free to join the union or not and they should be free to pay the fees or not. But, if they elect to not pay the fees, then they should receive none of the benefits. Just as a business is not required to provide free stuff to people just because they want it, the same should apply to the unions as well.
If the law is going to compel unions to provide services to non-union members, then the law must also compel those people to pay their fair share. Otherwise, the state would be mandating the equivalent of free lunches, something that typically violates conservative principles.
Except, it seems, when it comes to busting unions. After all, a very effective way to destroy a union is to compel it to provide services for free. This will encourage free riding and will thus deplete the union funds to the point where the union is no longer able to be effective—something that would please many conservatives. It is thus somewhat ironic that some conservatives are using a tactic that explicitly violates a basic principle of conservatives to weaken and destroy unions.