Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Janus, Faced

A friend in grad school once commented that she and I followed the Supreme Court the same way that normal people follow baseball.  So yes, I’ve been mulling over the Janus v AFSCME case for months. Longer, in fact, if you count the version that didn’t get decided when Scalia died.  

I’ve been working in unionized public higher education since 2003.  At all three community colleges, and in both states, representation fees were part of the order of the day.  I’ve known faculty who swear that the union is the only thing standing between them and penury, and I’ve known faculty who wanted absolutely nothing to do with their union.  Having also worked in a decidedly non-union setting -- DeVry -- I’ve seen the differences. But here I’ll focus instead on possible long-term fallout. Assuming the ruling stands for a while, what’s likely to happen?

The obvious immediate impact will be that the folks who only pay representation fees because they’re compelled to, will stop.  Anecdotally, I’d guess that this is a small, but non-zero, number. That will represent lost income for the union, and a short-term boost in take-home pay for those employees.  

What happens next is less obvious.

Presumably, some people who pay dues now only do so because the representation fee is so high (locally, it’s over 80 percent of dues) that they figure that they might as well, and at least get voting rights.  But if the alternative is 0 percent, rather than 80+, I’m guessing some will recalibrate and drop out. That will also represent lost income for the union, and a short-term boost in take-home pay for the ones who drop.

Over time, the union will have to confront a free-rider problem.  It would have to represent employees who don’t pay for it. Representation fees reduce the free-rider problem to a negligible level; abolishing them will bring it roaring back.  Free riders don’t matter much at negotiation time, but they can when it comes to grievances that rise above the campus level. Long legal battles aren’t cheap. If enough free riders emerge, of course, it could lead to decertification of the bargaining unit.  Which, in turn, could lead to compensation cuts that would offset unpaid union dues over time.

I assume that the union will fight back and double down on a membership drive, trying both to keep existing members and to get more.  It could do so by cutting its own costs, and therefore its dues, but I’d be surprised if it chose that route. It will almost certainly ramp up the apocalyptic claims, hoping for a “rally around the flag” effect.  Given that I’m in a blue state, it will certainly wield leverage at the state level, as has already happened. In my perfect world, that would include pushing for larger operating budgets, so the pie would be bigger, but that typically isn’t what happens.  Which is a shame, because that would actually help.

In a more rational universe, states that favor unions would give larger operating budgets to colleges to pay for them.  But both Massachusetts and New Jersey have been notably stingy with community college budgets, even while enabling unions to ramp up demands on them.  It falls on campus administrators to make the math work. Any connection to the increasing rate of presidential turnover, I’ll leave as an exercise for the reader.

The short-term incentive for elected officials is to cede ground to the unions on rules and processes, while holding the line on money.  Every single time that happens, the job of campus administration gets harder. Every new rule is an unfunded mandate. Over time, they add up.

So I’m guessing that in the short term, we’re looking at scared unions lobbying for what they consider winnable at the state level, elected officials offering rule changes in lieu of money, increased internal conflict on campus between free riders and advocates, increased cost pressures on campus to comply with those new rules, and years of legal and political uncertainty because the next election could flip it back again.

As a citizen, I’m concerned.  As a campus administrator, I’m upset.  As a court watcher, though, I’m chomping popcorn at a record rate.  The Janus case was appropriately named.

Program Note: I’ll be taking a brief summer break, so the blog will, too.  It will return on Monday, July 9. Happy 4th!