The Supreme Court’s ruling in Janus vs. AFSCME could have major consequences for both New York’s state and local governments and the million New Yorkers who work for them.
A divided 5-4 court agreed with plaintiff Mark Janus that since all activities of public employee unions are designed to influence government officials and shape public policy, paying for them amounts to “political” speech that people shouldn’t be forced to subsidize.
Unions must immediately step up their game, because all public workers now have a choice about paying dues that regularly top $1,000 a year. For those who never wanted to belong to a union in the first place, the ruling puts this money back in their pockets. The unions will have less money to both elect their friends and threaten their enemies — that is, generally, anyone who stands up for taxpayers.
But what does the ruling mean for the fiscal future of the Empire State, home of the country’s most unionized public sector? It depends, as always, on our elected officials.
Government unions hold outsize influence over public policy, in no small part because of the now-invalidated law that made workers pay them as a condition of employment. Even the attorney for AFSCME, which stands for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, conceded during oral arguments that losing agency fees — which were paid in lieu of dues by workers who declined membership — will diminish its political influence.
Time, and future fiscal circumstances, will tell which of New York’s elected officials are kindred spirits with the unions, and which are just afraid of them.
Elected officials and union leaders tend to mutually reinforce their short-term focus, which doesn’t stretch far beyond the next term in office. Union leaders want to deliver the most wins for their members, and elected officials want to avoid facing union retaliation in the next election. This exposes future taxpayers and government workers alike to enormous long-term risks and liabilities.
Take the city’s underfunded pension systems, some of which have less than 70 cents available for every dollar promised in future benefits. Unions fight efforts to modernize the plans, and pressure state lawmakers to further sweeten benefits. Union leadership has gone so far as to prevent their members from having a choice in their retirement plans, blocking Gov. Cuomo’s 2012 push to let them choose a portable 401(k)-style option.
With unions now focused more on keeping members and less on menacing elected officials, lawmakers can now speak more openly about the city and state’s fiscal realities, such as pension costs that gobble up almost one in every six dollars the city collects in taxes.
Public employers across New York have separately promised well over a quarter-trillion dollars more in health care benefits for their retirees than they have saved for. Some upstate cities already spend more on coverage for retirees than on current employees. New York City and New York State each have unfunded retiree health care obligations approaching $90 billion. Responsible voices in government now have stronger footing to demand unions forgo goodies today to better fund the goodies they’ve won in the past.
Here workers themselves will benefit from more long-term thinking at the bargaining table. After all, they can’t trust future union officials to defend their interests in retirement when they’ve stopped paying dues. Thanks to Janus, city employees can better demand accountability from the people representing them.
The Janus ruling is good news for workers, who deserve to have a choice in supporting outfits as intensely political as government unions. And New York’s elected officials should themselves welcome this moment and the new chapter of labor relations it’s begun.
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